A movement emerges: Will unpaid internships disappear?

This summer, countless numbers of students will work in unpaid internships, in many instances for large corporations that could easily afford to pay them. Not only is this widespread practice often in apparent violation of state and federal minimum wage laws, but also it creates barriers to those who want to break into an occupation but who cannot afford to work for free.

Now there’s an emerging movement against unpaid internships (especially in the private sector), and here’s evidence of its coming out party:


Well-publicized legal claims for back pay by unpaid interns have played a significant role in bringing this common practice to public light.

It started last fall with a lawsuit filed by two unpaid interns, Alex Footman and Eric Glatt, who worked on the production of the movie “Black Swan,” alleging that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime rules.

Earlier this year, Xuedan Wang, a former unpaid intern for Harper’s Bazaar, filed a claim against the magazine’s publisher, the Hearst Corporation.

The lawsuits already are having an impact on employer practices. As Paul Davidson reports for USA Today (link here):

As summer intern season draws near, many employers are doing away with unpaid internships or converting them to paid programs amid lawsuits that claim interns should have been compensated for their work, labor lawyers say.

“They’re saying, ‘We’re not going to run the risk,’ ” says Al Robinson, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and former acting administrator of the Labor Department’s wage and hour unit.

Media attention

The lawsuits and other actions are not going unnoticed by the media. This Sunday’s front page article in the New York Times by labor reporter Steven Greenhouse is prime evidence:

Confronting the worst job market in decades, many college graduates who expected to land paid jobs are turning to unpaid internships to try to get a foot in an employer’s door.

. . . Although many internships provide valuable experience, some unpaid interns complain that they do menial work and learn little, raising questions about whether these positions violate federal rules governing such programs.

Last week, Time magazine weighed in with a piece, “The Beginning of the End of the Unpaid Internship.” Josh Sanburn posits:

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.

In March New York magazine proclaimed the emergence of an “intern-rights movement” and reported on its own survey of interns:

An intern-rights movement is afoot, sparking class-action suits against Hearst and Fox Searchlight; rumors of new rules at Condé Nast; a Times “Ethicist” column (headline: “The Internship Rip-Off”); and a book (Intern Nation) decrying many of the unpaid jobs as boondoggles.

Occupy Wall Street

The Arts & Labor working group of Occupy Wall Street has called upon six online job boards to stop listing unpaid internships (media advisory here):

Six major online job boards . . . were served letters calling for an end to the publishing of classified listings for unpaid internships at for-profit businesses. . . . Collectively the six job boards channel thousands of unpaid workers to for-profit businesses in a variety of creative industries including the visual arts, publishing, theater, film, television and electronic media, without regard for the ethics or legality of such arrangements, thereby undermining the overall health and sustainability of the labor market within those industries.

They’ve also produced the informational flyer featured at the top of this blog post, which can be downloaded here.

And on television…

The HBO series “Girls” features a major subplot about the challenges of unpaid internships. When a “hip” cable series picks up a story line like this, it’s additional evidence that the issue is entering the mainstream.

Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation

Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation (2011) is now available in paperback. It’s an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the social, economic, and legal aspects of this topic.

Private vs. public & non-profit

I believe it’s wrong — ethically and often legally — for profit-making enterprises with large payrolls and well-compensated executives, especially medium and large sized corporations, to hire unpaid interns. (Remember, we’re not talking about interns getting rich here. We’re talking about paying the minimum wage.)

However, public and non-profit employers are not in existence to make profits, and there are compelling reasons to encourage students and others to be exposed and contribute to service-oriented institutions. Work-study and college-funded grant programs can help to provide income for otherwise unpaid internships in these sectors.

Very promising signs

All this activity is encouraging. Students and others are challenging employers to do the right thing by paying interns who contribute their talent and energy to the work of an organization. In such instances, it’s entirely fair to expect at least the minimum wage in return.


Personal note

Faithful readers of this blog know that I’m not a neutral party on this topic, as I have been writing and blogging about unpaid internships for many years.

Last December I met with Ross Perlin, Eric Glatt, and journalist Tiffany Ap to discuss the practice of unpaid internships and strategies for bringing this issue to public attention. In addition, I’m pleased that my law review article, “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns,” Connecticut Law Review (free download here) has been cited approvingly in Intern Nation and by Occupy Wall Street as an informational resource.

3/9/12 addendum

Steven Greenhouse added a nice followup piece on the employment relations and social impact implications of unpaid internships, posted to the Times‘s Economix blog here. I appreciate his quoting from the comment I left to his original piece:

Professor David Yamada of the Suffolk University Law School in Boston wrote in to make a point that I had made in a 2010 article on unpaid internships, but did not discuss in my article on Sunday. Missing from the article, Professor Yamada wrote, “is the fact that unpaid internships have huge social class impacts on folks who cannot afford to work for free, reinforcing economic barriers to certain professions long associated with the well-to-do.”

One response

  1. Pingback: Pilant's Business Ethics Blog | Tell President Obama to Pay His Interns!

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