40 people in a room doing entry-level jobs for free
According to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, internships at for-profit companies can be unpaid if the internship is “for the benefit of the intern” and “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.”
But some recent lawsuits are shining a light on how unpaid internships are more like free labor.
NYU student, Christina Isnardi interned at a local production company the summer after her freshman year. “When I got to the place, it was extremely illegitimate and exploitative. My employer, he basically used me for free labor,” she said. “I had a friend who had to wash dishes for a film company.” Now a junior at NYU, Isnardi has co-founded the organization Fair Pay for Interns and started an online petition at her school to remove unpaid internship opportunities from its CareerNet.
Vice president of Intern Bridge, Robert Shindell, estimates that a million undergraduates take internships each year. And about 20% of those internships are unpaid with no academic credit.
“The bad internships are 40 people in a room doing entry-level jobs for free,” says Mikey Franklin, co-founder of the Fair Pay Campaign, a group attempting to lobby for legislation that would mandate pay for an intern’s labor. “The good internships are only for people who can afford to work for free.”
While unpaid internships are more common in “creative” fields such as film, fashion and politics, a petition on Moveon.org asks the question: “Where can an adult work 50 hours for no pay in 2013?” And answers it with: “The White House Intern program.”
That is real work, Mr. President
The petition has about 8,500 signatures. “That is real work, Mr. President,” the petition reads. “It’s not equivalent to a semester in college.”
Other recent lawsuits include two interns on the set of Black Swan who sued Fox Searchlight Pictures, alleging they did basic tasks undertaken by regular entry-level employees, as well as an ex-Harper’s Bazaar intern who sued Hearst Magazines, an unpaid intern who sued Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records, and a former intern at Donna Karan International.
These companies argue their competitive unpaid internships benefit the students. But for many parents and students these internships prove too expensive.
“There are strict legal guidelines. If you’re doing the work of a for-profit company, it is eminently clear that you should get paid. It is abundantly clear,” Franklin says.
Peter K. Levine
A Professional Law Corporation