One of my first jobs could be considered an internship. I worked for free for a consulting engineering practice to get new clients for the business. After 6 months I had to leave the unpaid job for a paid one with a bank. Still, I was grateful for the opportunity because it gave me an opportunity of learning how a business was run while getting to practice my skills. For my employer, he benefited having a free hand to market his business. Still, I and probably him knew this was a short term one-off opportunity. Internships is a unique idea for someone to gain a work experience in a aspire job or industry while giving an employer to appreciate the talents and skills you have that he will benefit. In Australia, graduates and apprentices (the equivalent of interns) are paid for their services. I think the same is also practiced in the Philippines. And getting paid even if it is an internship is the key. It forces the employer to place a value for the labour provided by the intern. For the intern, it makes him focus his efforts on how to add value to the company. Without it, both will choose to have work of no meaningful value since it is unpaid.
In August 2011, when Diana Wang began her seventh unpaid internship, this time at Harper’s Bazaar, the legendary high-end fashion magazine, she figured that her previous six internships – at a modeling agency, a PR firm, a jewelry designer, a magazine, an art gallery and a state governor’s office – had prepared her for the demands of New York’s fashion world.
“I was so determined to make this one really worth my while,” says the 28-year-old Wang, who moved from Columbus, Ohio, to New York, where she was living with her boyfriend (also working as an unpaid intern at one point) and living off of her savings. “I knew I couldn’t do anymore internships after this.”
As it turned out, Wang’s internship was just like many of the thousands of others: unrewarding in terms of both pay and marketable experience — not to mention the lack of a job offer. In fact, the only difference between her internship and most others was what happened about a month after it ended. Wang sued.
On Feb. 1, the law firm Outten & Golden filed a class-action lawsuit against the Hearst Corporation, which owns Harper’s Bazaar, on behalf of Wang and any other unpaid and underpaid intern who worked at the company over the past six years. The lawsuit alleges that, among other things, Hearst violated federal and state labor laws by having Wang work as many as 55 hours a week without compensation.
“It was disgusting,” says Wang, referring to her unpaid daily responsibilities like shipping hats between New York and London for $350 each way, not being able to eat lunch until 4 p.m., routinely shuttling heavy bags around Manhattan and working to 10 p.m. with no break for dinner – all while supervising eight other interns. “Thinking of the spring interns who would come in with high hopes just like my fellow interns and I had — I decided that someone had to put a stop to this practice, which was going to go on forever and get worse before it got better.”
Hearst declined to respond to the specific accusations made by Wang because of pending litigation, but the company did release a statement: “The internship programs at each of our magazines are designed to enhance the educational experience of students who are receiving academic credit for their participation, and are otherwise fully in compliance with applicable laws. We intend to vigorously defend this matter.” (Time Inc.’s policy is to pay interns. Limited exceptions may be made where appropriate, such as when a student is receiving academic credit and meets other requirements as well.)
In the workplace, there seem to be two long-established but contradictory rules: Everyone gets paid to work – unless there’s mindless drivel to do, of course, and then you get college kids to do it for free.
For decades, that seemed just fine. But that was before a couple of interns sued Fox Searchlight in September after they were tasked with the responsibilities of production assistants, bookkeepers, secretaries and janitors without wages. This wasn’t mindless coffee-fetching, they argued. These were entry-level positions that were being filled by unpaid hands. Thanks to the struggling economy, companies were now relying on interns to do entry-level work without having to pay them wages or benefits.
That lawsuit prompted other unpaid interns to sue, including Wang and an intern who took legal action against PBS’s “The Charlie Rose Show” in March.
As college students make the annual rite of passage from college classroom to summer internship, those unpaid positions may have finally peaked. Says Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: “I think we may be at the very early stages of a significant backlash against an internship phenomenon that has gone off the rails.”
Internship or Internment?
The very first interns weren’t carrying luggage around New York City. Instead, they were anesthetizing, bloodletting and vaccinating. Between the mid-1800s and World War II, interns were only found in hospitals. Medicine was considered a unique field that could only be learned through observing and hands-on practice. Those internships are now the medical field’s modern-day residencies.
Around the 1930s, education and business leaders started advocating for a more seamless transition from school to the workplace in areas other than medicine. Internships began spreading into other fields, first in public administration and later publishing, marketing and banking.
As more internships sprouted across the country, Congress passed a number of laws regulating them, including the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1947, which specifically lays out a 6-point test, still in use today, for hiring unpaid interns. Under the Department of Labor’s test, an intern must be paid unless:
1. The internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment;
2. The internship is for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees;
4. The employer derives no immediate advantage from the intern;
5. The intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship; and
6. The intern understands that he or she is not entitled to wages.
The real intern boom didn’t occur until the 1970s and 1980s. That’s when two big shifts occurred, says Perlin. The first was a move from the traditional norm of holding on to one job and working there your entire life to multiple forms of “contingent labor.” It’s what sociologist Andrew Ross has called the “casualization” of the U.S. labor force. Employers soon realized the benefits of part-time employees, independent contractors and temporary workers. By hiring contingent workers, employers could pay less in benefits, prevent workers’ attempts to unionize and initiate layoffs much more easily. That was coupled with the proliferation of Human Resource departments, which are now often solely responsible for hiring and bringing in new employees, many of whom often begin as interns through a company’s internship program.
Even before the financial collapse around 2007 and 2008, internships – both paid and unpaid – were increasing. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that 50% of college grads in 2008 had held an internship, compared with 17% in 1992. But the Great Recession accelerated that boom. Today, an estimated one-third to one-half of the 1.5 million internships in the U.S. are unpaid.
“More and more people after they graduate are feeling they have no choice but to take on unpaid internships,” says Perlin. “It’s something that you have to do three, four, five times potentially to break into an industry or to get any kind of paying work. It may even be something you do in your 30s or 40s.”
The Intern as Entry-Level Employee
No need to tell Eric Glatt that. Twenty years ago he began teaching English as a foreign language, then went back to school to get an MBA, which landed him a job with an insurance broker in Midtown Manhattan. But he always wanted to work in movies, so he started taking film classes at night and began working on a couple documentary projects – one paid, one unpaid. After a brief stint with insurance giant AIG and a run-in with the financial crisis, he thought he’d give the film thing one more shot.
At 40, Glatt was hired by Fox Searchlight as an unpaid intern on the set of the Oscar-nominated movie Black Swan. Because of his business background, Glatt was sent to the accounting department, where he carried around petty cash, filed receipts and made sure checks were signed. Initially, his job wasn’t labeled “intern.” It was “accounting clerk.”
During his internship, Glatt says he started doing some research about whether his internship was legal – and that got him thinking.
“I weighed my options for quite some time,” Glatt says. “I remember reading an article saying that unpaid internships were a lawsuit waiting to happen. I realized after a while, I’m that lawsuit.”
Fox Searchlight declined to comment on the specifics of Glatt’s allegations but issued a statement through a company representative: “It is clear that these are meritless claims aimed solely at getting press coverage for the litigants and their attorneys. Fox Searchlight internships comply with all federal and state laws and regulations, by paying required wages or complementing the individual’s academic studies in for-credit programs, while also providing them valuable ‘real world’ business experience. We look forward to aggressively fighting these groundless, opportunistic accusations.”
Fox and others seem to argue that they can get around not paying interns by offering college credit, but Glatt says he wasn’t enrolled in school at the time, and to the best of his knowledge, neither were any of the other dozen or so unpaid interns.
“They were counting on the fact that nobody would sue,” says Glatt, “particularly kids who are out of school. This culture of expecting to be able to get free labor if you slap the title intern on it has become so pervasive that people don’t question whether it’s ethically wrong or legally acceptable.”
The Influence of Occupy
Something else was happening when Glatt was considering legal action: Occupy Wall Street. The downward mobility of young people was part of the overall language of Occupy, and unpaid internships fit perfectly into that narrative.
“Unpaid internships have been talked about for the first time as a political issue in this country,” Perlin says. “There’s more awareness of the law, and these lawsuits are helping that.”
While intern lawsuits aren’t unprecedented – there was a prominent lawsuit against an Atlanta public relations firm in the 1990s – there have been next to none, likely because former interns are worried that they’ll be ostracized in an industry in which they’re trying to work. Besides, even a successful settlement isn’t going to get them much money.
“There’s still a big fear factor for interns about stepping forward and putting themselves on the line, risking potentially being blacklisted within an industry or within a firm,” Perlin says. “It’s a big thing to come out for not that much money. The back wages at stake are maybe several thousand dollars.”
Alex Footman, another former Fox Searchlight intern who filed the lawsuit along with Glatt, says he worries about how others in the film industry will treat him now.
“I realize that I have made a decision that could prevent me from being hired in the future,” Footman says.