July 11, 2013
Unpaid internships: drain on society, economy
A recent ruling by a federal district court judge in New York could be the first step towards the dismantling of the unpaid internship. In Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures the judge ruled that two interns on two film production crews – one of which worked on the Academy Award-winning film “Black Swan” – were entitled to wages tantamount to at least minimum wage for their contributions in the workplace.
Unpaid internships have long been a matter of reluctant acceptance for most university students. No one is enthused by the prospect of long hours sandwiched into a busy schedule of classes with no prospect of monetary compensation for their efforts.
Even less appealing is the all too common reality that interns are often little more than glorified errand-runners. Fetching coffee, making copies, sorting files and other assorted menial tasks are touted as opportunities for learning in a real-world environment by employers seeking a free source of labor. And unpaid interns get all of this “valuable experience” not only without pay, but with the added cost of shelling out thousands of dollars to their universities for the accompanying college credits.
“I think this ruling is a wake-up call,” said Charles Lamberton, an attorney at Lamberton Law Firm LLC in Pittsburgh who specializes in employment discrimination. “It’s a reminder that there is no such thing as free labor.”
The judge used a set of six guidelines from the Fair Labor Standards Act in order to determine the legality of the unpaid internships brought before him in this case.
1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for
the time spent in the internship.
According to the judge the internships under Fox Searchlight did not meet these requirements, namely the one stipulating that interns not displace regular employees. The interns’ duties mainly consisted of fetching lunch, running errands, filing and other similar tasks - none of which provided any experience relative to the field of movie production.
“In the case out of New York, these interns were learning a lot about how to file invoices in a filing cabinet, but no formalized tutoring or education as to what really goes into making a movie,” Lamberton said. “This is a really important point that gets lost on employers. It doesn’t have to be work on the level of rocket science, it can be clerical and even janitorial work. If it is something they would have to pay another employee to do, it would still count against the employer.”
Everyone is entitled to compensation for their labor. It devalues the human condition to assert that what one does for a wage can be done by another for nothing simply because of their lack of other options.
Aside from questions of morality and ethics, unpaid internships aren’t quite the job-creating opportunities their supporters would have everyone believe. According to a May, 2013 survey of 9,200 college seniors by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), unpaid interns are half as likely to find a job as paid interns, and equally as likely to find a job as those with no internships at all.
This study concurs with data compiled by Jordan Weissmann, a writer for The Atlantic, through Intern Bridge, a consulting firm that compiles data through a huge annual survey of college interns. Weissmann asked Intern Bridge to provide him with unpublished data from their survey, in which he found results that coincide with the NACE study.
“While there’s a stark difference between having a paid internship and no internship in terms of offer rates and median salary, it all pretty much seems to wash away when you’re talking about unpaid internships versus no internships at all,” Edwin Nace, NACE’s research director, told Weissmann.
Yet to be mentioned is the economic impact of unpaid internships. The recent plight of college graduates seeking entry-level positions in their fields has been well documented. Cullen Seltzer, an attorney in Richmond, VA, argued in a recent article for Slate magazine that unpaid internships are a prime cause of this issue.
“There are three actors in this drama: employers (who want low labor costs), interns (who will work for free), and workers who need money,” Seltzer said. “Traditionally, employers and interns have joined forces, effectively, to the economic disadvantage of workers. Because of interns, paid entry-level work is scarcer, and some workers lose out.”
Faced with all this evidence, the benefits of unpaid internships appear scarce. So why do they continue to exist? Why, for the same reason most anything that disenfranchises 99 percent of the population exists – profits. After all, why pay someone to do a job that can be handed off to a naïve college student for free?
While the ruling against Fox Searchlight has no tangible legal implications outside the Southern New York court district, it sets a precedent for future cases brought by unpaid internships. This decision emboldens interns too afraid of upsetting the status quo and becoming blacklisted in their career field for sticking up for their basic human dignity. And it’s high time the human condition took precedence over the continual quest to increase profits.