Condé Nast shutters its internship program in the face of minimum wage lawsuits

Condé Nast, publisher of high-end magazines such as VogueVanity Fair, and GQ, has shuttered its well-known internship program in the face of lawsuits alleging it is in violation of minimum wage laws. Current interns have been paid stipends that average out to about a dollar an hour. Apparently the company decided it was better to stop hiring interns than to pay them the princely minimum wage.

Interview with ProPublica

As part of ProPublica’s investigative project on the intern economyCasey McDermott did a wide-ranging interview with me about the intern economy. From that interview, here are my specific points about the Condé Nast development:

What is your initial reaction to the news that Condé Nast will halt its internship program?

I was disappointed but not surprised. Disappointed because a company like Condé Nast, which publishes high-end, big-budget magazines, certainly can afford to pay its interns the minimum wage. It also strikes me as being very shortsighted. They have an opportunity to evaluate promising candidates for future employment and to help train the next generation of writers and creative people, while gaining the benefit of their work. It could’ve been a win-win, but they opted for the lose-lose.

This move is often cited as one potential drawback to calling for an end to unpaid internships — do you think it will trigger other companies who are facing pressure for internship compensation practices to do the same?

I think it’s a toss-up in terms of what will happen next. Some companies may end their internship programs; others will realize that paying at least the minimum wage is a mutually beneficial move.

Do you think this might affect the pending lawsuit against this company, or those against other companies?

While I can’t get into the heads of judges and speculate on how current events affect their legal analysis, the questions of compensation as set out by the Department of Labor and the courts seem pretty clear cut as to the key factors to be considered. The Condé Nast decision shouldn’t affect judicial and administrative rulings if the standards are properly applied. However, it’s possible that federal and state labor departments will be under increasing pressure from corporate interests to ease off on any enforcement efforts concerning unpaid internships. This may become a more political issue as the intern rights movement gains steam.

Overall, do you anticipate any reduction in internships as a result of increased scrutiny of intern wages and treatment?

I think we’re in a period of potential restructuring of what we’ve been calling the intern economy. Similar to what we’re seeing with health care, there will be some disruption and uncertainty as all this shakes out. It may mean a reduction in the net number of internships offered, but that reduction affects everyone equally in terms of supply.  In addition, given the NACE studies showing that unpaid internships may carry less clout in the entry-level job market, it’s far from clear that an overall reduction in unpaid opportunities will have a negative effect on individual employment prospects.

A “cruel and terrible mistress”?

Condé Nast’s decision is getting a lot of media play, and it has caused at least one writer to dig into the culture of its internship program . Alexander Abad-Santos, blogging for The Atlantic, gives us the scoop on interning for Condé Nast:

The death of the Condé Nast internship program is a lot like being at a funeral for the meanest, most popular girl at school. We’re now at the point where everyone is remembering what an awesome time they had at their internship and forgetting what a cruel and terrible mistress Condé Nast was. It’s not unlike hearing someone talk fondly about being hazed….

Abad-Santos quotes former Conde Nast interns waxing nostalgic about their intern experiences in Cara Buckley’s New York Times piece about the closing of the internship program and then responds:

These people reminiscing fondly about working for free and about a company that didn’t want them to pay them minimum wage. Obviously, having a set of parents willing to pay to have their kids live in New York City makes the memories a little more fond (the former interns who The Times spoke to say that living in New York City without parental aid is impossible). There’s something not right here.

The culture of Condé Nast, Abad-Santos reminds us, was the inspiration for one of the all-time bad boss books and movies, “The Devil Wears Prada.” (For fun, don’t forget to take his “Who Said It, Sorority Sister or Condé Nast Intern?” quiz!)

Stay tuned

As I’ve told reporters about the developing challenges to unpaid internships, stay tuned, there’s more to come. The legal and employee relations issues raised by the intern economy are now sharpening at the point of application and practice, and we’re still in the early stages of having these questions resolved.

***

More about the Condé Nast decision

Here are other pieces in which I was quoted about Condé Nast’s decision:

Wall Street Journal (Lauren Weber)

Fortune (Claire Zillman)

ABA Journal (Debra Cassens Weiss)

Law review article

I’ve authored a forthcoming law review article (“The Legal and Social Movement Against Unpaid Internships,” Northeastern University Law Journal), which analyzes recent legal and policy developments and the emergence of the intern rights movement.

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