All Work, No Pay?

Unpaid student internships come under fire

The New York Times urged in an editorial that interns receive wages - and then took its own advice (Photo by Rachael Levy)

The New York Times urged in an editorial that interns receive wages – and then took its own advice
(Photo by Rachael Levy)

SHE WAS 21 with a resumé of gold.

In Midtown Manhattan skyscrapers, where the rents are high and the laborers are cheap, Julia worked for the magazines of her dreams: Vanity Fair. Marie Claire. Cosmopolitan. Seventeen. She transcribed interviews, pitched ideas and reported and wrote stories. When senior writers were short on time, Julia made the necessary phone calls and collected celebrity gossip for them. If she was lucky, she’d get a byline, maybe a recommendation letter.

But rarely a paycheck.

By the time she graduated from New York University in 2011, Julia had completed seven internships, almost all in the magazine world, all for little or no pay. As the post-grad months passed, Julia found the societally-promised job – the lure that leads many young people to take unpaid work – beyond her reach, despite numerous applications. “I put in so many hours,” Julia, now 24, recalled recently near Hearst Tower in Manhattan, where she completed several of the internships. “I had had it.”

Julia (who requested that her last name be withheld for fear of jeopardizing her career) had put in 2,562 hours, by her count. She would have earned more than $20,000 had she been paid New York’s minimum wage, currently $8 an hour.

Julia’s unpaid trajectory might shock the conscience. But for many young people trying to break into certain industries – government, international affairs, media, film, fashion and others – unpaid work has long been one of those things you were told to do, part and parcel of taking out mountains of college debt. Conservatively estimated, there are 500,000 unpaid interns in the United States each year, saving companies $2 billion annually, according to Ross Perlin, author of the book “Intern Nation.” Among last year’s college graduates, only 37 percent of those who had completed an unpaid internship found a job, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That’s hardly any better than the 35.2 percent who found a job but had never interned.

Companies and universities are quietly recognizing that unpaid work is unfair – only the relatively well heeled can work for nothing – and likely illegal. 

But times are changing. Unpaid internships face increasing moral and legal challenges. The institutions involved are quietly recognizing that unpaid work is unfair – only the relatively well heeled can work for nothing – and likely illegal. Companies and universities, long complicit in the internship racket, are changing their policies, and cities are ramping up protections, too.

Nowhere are the changes more apparent than in New York City. Columbia University now refuses to provide academic credit for unpaid positions held by its students, and New York University tightened its rules for employers posting unpaid internships last fall after a student there, Christina Isnardi, started an online petition. (The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism requires students to complete a summer internship before graduating. The school pays students who are unable to find a paid internship a $3,000 stipend as a way to level the playing field, an administrator said.)

The New York Times wrote a tough editorial against providing academic credit for internships, saying they “mostly functioned as a fig leaf for employers, who could pretend that the credit somehow justified not paying for a student’s work.” But at the time the editorial appeared, the Times itself was still offering unpaid positions for academic credit, as social media and BuzzFeed were quick to point out. A little over a week later, the Times started paying all of its interns at least minimum wage, just as several other prominent media companies have.

The New York City Council acted after a federal judge ruled that an unpaid intern at the New York office of a Chinese news agency could not file a sexual harassment complaint because she was not a paid employee. The council passed a bill that would guarantee workplace protections for interns (although the law would not guarantee pay).

“Everybody seems to get it,” says Eric Glatt, one in a group of interns who worked unpaid for “Black Swan,” the blockbuster film that grossed many millions of dollars. The interns sued the production company, Fox Searchlight, and won the case last year when a judge ruled that they must be considered employees and paid accordingly. (Fox Searchlight is appealing.) “People seem more familiar with … what the law actually says,” Glatt says. “They see it’s not as forgiving as the wide practice might suggest.”

Unpaid internships in the for-profit sector must meet very high standards to be considered legal by the U.S. Department of Labor. For one thing, an internship program has to be run at no benefit to the employer. That standard raises questions about where such unpaid internships could exist, since nearly all unpaid interns benefit their companies in some way, says Sally Abrahamson, a lawyer at Outten & Golden, which filed the Fox Searchlight case. “Even if it’s a menial task, like making copies and getting coffee, those are things that otherwise a paid employee would have to do,” Abrahamson says. “We’re not saying that unpaid internships aren’t valuable experiences. We’re saying that they need to follow the law.”

By following the law, she means that if internships don’t meet the Department of Labor’s specifications, the interns need to be paid at least minimum wage. Academic credit is no substitute. The Labor Department’s guidelines say if a university provides academic credit or oversight, an unpaid internship is more likely to be legal because it’s closer to an “educational environment.” But that doesn’t mean credit gets employers off the hook. If an intern is working in any way that provides an “immediate advantage” to the employer – lawyers say this could be anything from fetching coffee to reporting and writing articles – then the arrangement may be illegal. By employing interns, companies run a long-term risk, since interns can file for back wages up until six years later, depending on state and federal laws.

University administrators and careers offices argue that requiring paid internships will put off budget-conscious companies and result in fewer opportunities for young people. They point to the magazine publisher Condé Nast, which discontinued its internship program last fall in the wake of lawsuits filed by former unpaid interns. But proponents of paid internships note that Condé Nast appears to be the only company taking such drastic measures. Several other media companies and outlets – including the New York Times, Gawker Media, Slate, VICE, Mother Jones, Viacom Inc., NBC Universal and The Nation – have all started paying at least the minimum wage for positions that were previously unpaid or paid below minimum wage, according to the advocacy group Intern Labor Rights. (The magazines where Julia worked either do not pay interns or have closed shop.)

Activists say this shift is a good thing, bringing companies in line with the law while leveling the playing field and increasing job opportunities for young people. “The bottom line is that if there’s fewer internships, it affects everyone equally,” says David Yamada, a law professor at Suffolk University Law School. “It can be argued that the number of unpaid internships is depressing the number of entry-level jobs.” Yamada has been studying the employment law implications of internships for the last 15 years – “it was a sleeping giant of an issue,” he recalls – and wrote one of the first law review articles on the topic in 2002. But it wasn’t until 2011, when Ross Perlin published “Intern Nation,” often citing Yamada’s research, that the issue went mainstream. More former interns started suing for back pay, and last year’s favorable “Black Swan” ruling pushed media coverage to new heights. “It exceeded my expectations,” Yamada says. “And I don’t think it’s stopped. I think there is more to come.”

For Julia, the serial magazine intern, the changes may have come too late. She switched career paths and is currently enrolled in law school. ■

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