“I can no longer afford to work for free”

This terrific three minute segment from HBO’s Girls (the embed function above won’t play the video, so click here) captures much of what the contemporary intern economy is all about. Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham) has been working in an unpaid internship for over a year following her graduation from college. She informs her boss that “my circumstances have changed, and I can no longer afford to work for free.” He professes regret (but without an offer of paid work), saying that he was just about to let her run the firm’s Twitter account.

Among other things, the segment accurately portrays how unpaid internships now stretch beyond undergraduate status. For many new holders of bachelor’s degrees, the next stop is yet another payless gig.

The Girls segment is from 2012, and a lot has happened since then, not the least of which is the sea of lawsuits challenging unpaid internships and various organizing and advocacy initiatives. The tide is shifting. For example, Susan Adams, writing for Forbes.com, says that “Employers Should Pay Their Interns,” explaining:

After writing three posts [about unpaid internships] and doing another round of interviews with lawyers on both sides of the issue, in addition to a plaintiff and an employer, I believe most if not all employers should pay their interns. At the very least, I agree with defense lawyers who say employers are asking for trouble if they don’t pay at least a minimum wage and instead try to hide behind school credit.

If you’re just discovering this blog now, then you’ve missed a lot of posts on unpaid internships and the legal issues related to them. But if you want to learn more, here are some informative sources:

  • Intern Labor Rights published a detailed report about the major progress made by the intern rights movement during 2013.
  • Last year, ProPublica launched an ongoing investigative project about the intern economy. I’ve been serving as a subject matter expert to the project.
  • Earlier this year, the Boston Globe Magazine ran an in-depth cover story on unpaid internships by Melissa Schorr. I was interviewed extensively for the piece.


Hat tip to Prof. Miriam Cherry for the video suggestion!

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