A “Cozy” meeting about unpaid internships

l to r: Ross Perlin, Eric Glatt, Tiffany Ap

As some of you know, I’ve been concerned about the widespread practice of unpaid internships for some time.

These positions often exclude those who do not have the financial means to work without pay, thus creating class-based barriers to professions where the practice is very common, such as entertainment, media, the arts, and political advocacy. In addition, my own extensive legal research, published several years ago in a Connecticut Law Review article, led me to conclude that many unpaid internships in the private sector run afoul of minimum wage laws.

Meeting at the Cozy

I’m delighted that this topic finally is getting attention, and last weekend I had the pleasure of being part of an informal lunch meeting with two individuals who are making it happen: Eric Glatt, co-lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures seeking wages for unpaid interns working on the production of “Black Swan”; and Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Very Little in the Brave New Economy (2011).

Joined by journalist and Columbia Journalism School student Tiffany Ap, we met at the Cozy Soup ‘n’ Burger (Broadway & Astor Place — and my favorite New York City diner!) to talk about unpaid internships and how they relate to broader issues of work and economic justice.

Gray area

Internships have occupied a gray area in education and employment relations, standing somewhere between the status of student and that of employee. In reality, however, most interns provide tangible value to their employer, and both ethics and law point to the imperative of paying them for their labor. Thanks in part to folks like Eric and Ross, we’ll be hearing more about this topic in the months and years to come.

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Related Posts

Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation explores the internship phenomenon

Unpaid interns for “Black Swan” file wage claim against Fox Searchlight Pictures

On the practice and legality of unpaid internships

3 responses

  1. My daughter is a student at the Park School at Ithaca, studying Television and Radio. The school claims that they won’t allow the students to do internships unless they are truly a learning experience – no filing, no fetching coffee. If that’s true, and she is getting an education and making industry contacts, it seems to me that there *is* an economic value to the experience, even if she’s not getting paid in currency. She is bartering her time and her efforts in exchange for experience and networking. Is that so bad? If it’s menial labor, and there is no compensation, I can see the exploitation factor. I do worry about her lack of standing in the event that she is mistreated, given that won’t be an employee, though. Greater protections for these kids make a lot of sense.

  2. Beth, unfortunately the same argument can be used for any type of work: “You’re getting training and contacts, so why should you also get paid?” The slippery slope leads to treating the inherent benefits of many jobs — experience, on-the-job learning, networking, etc. — as the equivalent of income. Assuming your daughter is doing tasks that help her internship employer earn a profit, why shouldn’t she be paid at least the minimum wage?

    And if she’s receiving academic credit for the internship, then isn’t she in essence paying tuition to volunteer for a profit-making company?

    That said, in my law review article I do distinguish between some types of educational internships — especially those in the non-profit and public sectors — and those in the private sector.

    In the litigation I reference, the two lead plaintiffs were doing production assistant and accounting work for a major motion picture that earned mega-millions, yet they and scores of others were not paid for their work. Had they not been there to provide free labor, the production company would’ve had to hire people to do the same.

  3. I served an internship in a large hospital in Michigan. They did not furnish uniforms nor any immunizations. The internship was unpaid, in fact in addition to working swing shifts for a year, you were responsible for renting a place to live (try that without a job) for a year. We were worked pretty heavily and after teh internshi we took a registry. The 15 interns a to my place, half failed the registry even though they were getting A’s and B’s for their experiences. Oddly the C group passed the Registry. Although I stuck out the internship (I finish what I start) the bad treatment and blatant exploitation the interns got there made me move into another profession, (I got a pt job and returned to school with a different major) I had an internship in my new major, there too but it was paid, and was for 15 weeks, not a year. I wouldn’t work for someone for nothing again,

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