Let’s pay interns to fetch coffee and make copies (on occasion)

The blog for American University’s internship programs states:

At American University (AU), interns don’t just fetch coffee or make copies. They work in one of the most exciting cities in the world and learn about their fields and themselves through stimulating experiences.

As many readers here know, I’m very supportive of the movement to end unpaid internships. Too often they are exploitative, exclusionary, and discriminatory. When unpaid interns deliver genuine work contributions, including doing ordinary errands and office work, their employers receive unjust enrichment. Also, unpaid internships exclude those who cannot afford to work for free or, at the very least, require them to do burdensome double shifts, one unpaid (the internship), the other paid (a gig to pay the bills).

The value of grunt work

That said, I have nothing against paying interns for work that may include taking a lunch order or two. In fact, I endorse it, and here’s why:

Quality internships help people to develop skills, gain experience, and build credentials relevant to occupations they wish to enter. They also allow employers to create a pipeline of talent into a field and to evaluate candidates for possible future employment.

Part of that arrangement involves the nurturing of a work ethic that includes a willingness to do grunt tasks that need to be done. A year ago, I wrote a piece listing out the qualities of my best bosses over the course of my working life. Here’s one of them:

There was no task beneath them. No princes or princesses. They’d jump in and do the same work you were doing if it needed to get done.

Any good employer evaluating the performance of an intern would want to see those qualities as well. Taking a coffee order or running the photocopier allows more experienced people to stay on focus. It contributes to the work of the organization. Assuming that such tasks are assigned fairly, the intern who balks at one is revealing something. In professional and creative settings, we sometimes have too many show horses and not enough work horses.

So yes, interns should be paid. And if an occasional assignment falls short of providing an intellectual or creative challenge, then that, too, may be a good test of someone’s worthiness for future employment.

Exploited twentysomethings: It’s time for a meetup with the labor movement

If you’re a recent college graduate, you may be learning some harsh truths about the job market: Good entry-level positions are few and far between. More than a few employers are willing to take advantage of that fact by offering jobs at very low pay, requiring well in excess of 40 hours of work per week. The worst of them create postgraduate internships, many of which are unpaid, to squeeze out even more while paying less nothing.

In a recent piece for the New York Times about the employment challenges facing many twentysomethings, Teddy Wayne writes:

The recession has been no friend to entry-level positions, where hundreds of applicants vie for unpaid internships at which they are expected to be on call with iPhone in hand, tweeting for and representing their company at all hours.

“We need to hire a 22-22-22,” one new-media manager was overheard saying recently, meaning a 22-year-old willing to work 22-hour days for $22,000 a year. Perhaps the middle figure is an exaggeration, but its bookends certainly aren’t.

Good jobs at good wages

You may have heard the phrase “good jobs at good wages.” It refers to jobs that provide safe working conditions and respectable compensation.

America used to have a lot more good jobs at good wages, but they weren’t created by accident — and they certainly didn’t come about at the behest of benevolent employers.

Rather, it took the labor movement to turn not-so-great jobs into decent ones. How do you think provisions such as living wages, health care coverage, pensions, paid vacation days, and sick leave entered the picture for rank-and-file workers? It took unions engaging in collective bargaining to do it.

It’s how, for example, working in the steel mills went from being a tough job at low pay and few benefits to a still tough job at good pay and decent benefits.

And today?

It’s more than a coincidence that America’s wealth and income gaps are sky high at a time when labor union membership has dwindled to one of its lowest levels ever.

You may have some misgivings about unions. Fair enough. Like any other type of organization, unions are far from perfect, and some do much better by their members than others. And yes, being in a union means you pay dues and “give up” the right to negotiate with your employer individually.

But this doesn’t change the fact that unions represent the best way for many workers to join together and advocate for their interests as a unified, more powerful voice.

Your college education and upbringing may cause you to think that unions are for blue-collar folks who work in plants and factories, or perhaps for cops, firefighters, schoolteachers, and other public servants.

That’s what I thought too when I graduated from law school as a newly-minted, idealistic public interest lawyer working for the Legal Aid Society in New York City. But I would quickly learn that the Legal Aid staff attorneys’ union played a critically important role in bargaining over salaries, benefits, and working conditions. I eventually became an elected shop steward (i.e., union rep for my office) and played an active role in the union’s advocacy work.

Intern Labor Rights

This is why I’m delighted to see an emerging movement against unpaid internships borrowing tactics from organized labor, and adding a few twists of its own. In the process, these advocates are starting to make their case against this widespread, economically exploitative practice.

Intern Labor Rights, for example, is using creative advocacy campaigns and social media to spread the word. While not a union per se, Intern Labor Rights is showing what happens when groups of committed, energetic people come together to push for change that benefits the greater good.

Dilbert vs. Norma Rae

It boils down to this:

On the one hand, you’ve got the cartoon character Dilbert, who makes his humorous, biting observations about cubicle life that are so on target, yet doomed to result in more of the same because one person growsing alone is unlikely to change anything. That’s the case even if you graduated magna cum laude from State U.

On the other hand, there’s Norma Rae, the character played by Sally Field in the award-winning movie of the same name. Norma comes to realize that conditions in the textile plant where she works aren’t going to improve until workers unionize, and so she enters the fray.

Too many younger folks — and yes, I’m now old enough to use that phrase “younger folks” — don’t understand why the labor movement is critical toward improving working conditions for everyone. At the risk of sounding condescending, I say it’s about time for them to get it, for their own good. They didn’t create the terrible job market and exploitative employer practices that confront them, but by organizing on their own behalf they can forge a more promising future.

Swag bag message to NY Fashion Week attendees: “Pay Your Interns”

Who says labor activists can’t deliver a message with a stylish wink? At last week’s New York Fashion Week, members of Intern Labor Rights — an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street Arts & Labor group — distributed colorful swag bags to attendees. Tyler McCall, blogging for Fashionista, got one:

Frankly, I was expecting lame pantyhose or maybe chapstick or something when I opened the box. Instead, there was a pin that read “Pay Your Interns” and some folded up literature about why unpaid internships are wrong and how you can get involved in the movement.

Here’s what she found inside:

“The Devil Pays Nada”

The fashion industry, you see, is notorious for using unpaid interns (among other exploited workers) on an international scale. And Fashion Week is a great event for reaching a global audience. Here’s what Intern Labor Rights had to say in announcing their swag bag promotion:

We invite your attention and critical eye to the widespread use of illegally unpaid workers in the fashion industry. This rampant wage theft, international in scope, is now being met with an international response:

In anticipation of our one-year anniversary, Intern Labor Rights is lovingly preparing hundreds of Intern Swag Bags to be given out at Fashion Week events over the February 8–10, 2013, weekend. To get your hands on an Intern Swag Bag, or to help us distribute, email us at intern.labor.rights@gmail.com and find out where we’ll be during the weekend. To track our progress follow #devilpaysnada and #payinterns on Twitter, or find us on Facebook.

There’s still plenty of room for old-fashioned, hard-nosed labor advocacy. But sometimes a light touch can be very effective, and this idea did the job quite nicely.

Want to learn more?

Intern Labor Rights has compiled an excellent list of resources on unpaid internships.

The list includes my 2002 Connecticut Law Review article, “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns,” freely downloadable here. And here’s a post I wrote last year on the emerging intern rights movement.

Working in the fast food industry: We need to change our perceptions


I didn’t grow up in a particularly wealthy area, but Northwest Indiana back in the day was home to steel mills that promised a decent paycheck to many a family. Most of the region’s cities and towns straddled the line between “working class” and “middle class.” For many young people, the future included possibilities such as working in the mills, going to a local college, or raising a family.

If you’re like me, you grew up thinking that working behind the counter at McDonald’s or Burger King was a classic entry-level job. It was not unusual to walk into a fast food place and to see one of your high school classmates taking orders or working the french fry baskets.

And if you had that job or something like it (mine was working as supermarket bagger), you might joke about making the minimum wage but mainly took it in stride. After all, you assumed that better opportunities would come your way.

Take another look

But hold on a minute. In truth, the vast majority of our low-wage workforce — including most who work in the fast food industry — are adults, and they’re not working behind that counter to pay for weekend movies or nights out with friends.

Fast Food Forward is a labor advocacy campaign on behalf of fast food workers in New York City, and their info graphic above shares the main points:

  • “Contrary to common belief, teens represent less than 12% of the low-wage work force.”
  • “Over 60% of low-wage workers are 25-64 years old…, many with families to support.”

And take a close look behind the counter

Okay, so maybe your dietary habits have evolved beyond Big Macs and Whoppers. But if you do find yourself ordering at any fast food restaurant, take a look at who is working there. At many of these places, you’ll find a good number of workers who are well past their teen years. It’s their main job (or one of them), and not infrequently they’re trying to support a family on it.

Just as there are wage-related reasons why we can walk into a big-box store and buy a DVD player for $40, the low prices of fast food items are partially enabled by the small paychecks of the people preparing and selling what customers consume.

Unions, yes!

I shake my head at people who scoff at the idea of fast food employees and other low-wage workers trying to unionize. These critics regard such organizing as an act of entitlement . . . Hey, I worked for the minimum wage before going to business school/marrying a doctor/winning Lotto . . . Why can’t they?

But let’s understand reality: Many people are trying to support themselves and their families in these jobs. And the Barons of the Low-Wage Workforce aren’t giving it up voluntarily. It will take workers organizing on their own behalf to push them beyond McWage-level paychecks. Here’s wishing it happens.

Working Notes: Charlie Rose settles unpaid intern lawsuit, WalMart vs. Costco, and eBossWatch’s worst boss list

From Intern Labor Rights

Credit: Intern Labor Rights

Here are some news items worth a look!

1. Settlement in unpaid interns lawsuit — Steven Greenhouse writes for the New York Times about PBS’s Charlie Rose Show settling a class action lawsuit for back wages brought by former unpaid interns (link here):

Charlie Rose and his production company have agreed to pay as much as $250,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by a former unpaid intern who claimed minimum-wage violations.

Under the settlement . . . , Mr. Rose and his production company, Charlie Rose Inc., will pay back wages to a potential class of 189 interns. The settlement calls for many of the interns to receive about $1,100 each — $110 a week in back pay, up to a maximum of 10 weeks, the approximate length of a school semester.

This is a major victory for the nascent but growing movement in opposition to unpaid internships.

2. WalMart vs. Costco on jobs — Here’s a neat little info graphic making its way around social media land, drawn from information compiled by Business Week:


Clearly, when it comes to compensation, not all big-box retailers are the same!

3. eBossWatch’s 2012 List of America’s Worst Bosses — One of my favorite sites, eBossWatch, has released its annual list of bad bosses. From the introduction to this year’s list:

The 2012 America’s Worst Bosses include a college dean, four restaurant owners, a fire department chief, five doctors, a judge, three county prosecuting attorneys, and a state attorney general.

. . . The managers who made this year’s list of America’s Worst Bosses were named in workplace lawsuits filed by their employees and were accused of workplace harassment and/or sexual harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and/or creating a hostile work environment.

Working Notes: A possible workplace bullying-related suicide in New Mexico, NYC fast-food workers call for decent pay, and NBC to pay student interns

Here are three news items worthy of attention:

1. Bullying-related suicide in New Mexico? — Staci Matlock reports for the Santa Fe New Mexican on the suicide of a 50-year-old woman whose family is claiming had to do with ongoing bullying at work (link here):

…The family members of Annette Prada say she told them she was a victim of workplace bullying at the Public Regulation Commission.

Prada, 50, was found by police Thursday, according to her family. Prada had worked for the corporations bureau at the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission for 23 years, according to her daughter Andre Prada. “She had been dealing with bullying and stress there for years,” Andre Prada said, claiming the abuse was verbal, through email and in demotions. “She was only two years away (from retirement). She tried to stay strong.”

Hat tip to Kathy Hermes, Connecticut Healthy Workplace Advocates, for the article.

2. NYC fast-food workers engaging in labor actions — Steven Greenhouse reports for the New York Times on labor actions calling for higher wages, staged by New York City fast-food workers (link here):

The biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast-food industry began at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday at a McDonald’s at Madison Avenue and 40th Street, with several dozen protesters chanting: “Hey, hey, what do you say? We demand fair pay.”

That demonstration kicked off a day of walkouts and rallies at dozens of Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants in New York City, organizers said. They said 14 of the 17 employees scheduled to work the morning shift at the McDonald’s on Madison Avenue did not — part of what they said were 200 fast-food workers who went on strike in the city.

Could this be the start of something big? Let’s hope so! I recall a talk by the late Beth Shulman, drawn from her book The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 50 Million Americans and their Families (2003), reminding us that all those “good jobs at good wages” in the manufacturing sector weren’t simply created that way; it took labor action and collective bargaining.

3. NBC to pay its student interns — The emerging movement against exploitative unpaid internships appears to have scored another victory. Richard Prince reports on the Maynard Institute blog that NBC is planning to institute a paid internship program (link here):

NBC News is planning to pay its interns starting in the spring of 2013, according to a well-placed source at the network, addressing a long-held contention that requiring interns to work only for the experience or for college credit amounts to favoring students with well-to-do parents.

The number of internships and the salary level have yet to be determined, the source said.

The arguments for and against unpaid internships have been made for years.

The post quotes news anchor Brian Williams’s concerns about declining diversity among “Nightly News” interns.

Hat tip to Eric Glatt for the blog piece.

Walmart workers organizing for better pay and working conditions: Black Friday strike planned

It’s easy for me, a single guy with a decent income, to preach the evils of shopping at Walmart and other big box stores to folks who may be struggling to make ends meet, so I’ll pass on doing that.

Rather, I’ll simply suggest that we support workers who are sticking out their necks to create better jobs for themselves and for others. This includes a thumbs up to Walmart workers who have been engaging in labor actions to protest their low pay and poor working conditions.

Black Friday strike

Groups of Walmart workers are planning a Black Friday strike, the results of which also may signal the prospects of future union organizing at Walmart stores. I wish for them great success in sending their message.

To learn more

Watch the short video above and listen to the voices of Walmart workers asking to be compensated and treated fairly.

For an assortment of Huffington Post blog pieces about the significance of the Walmart labor actions, go here

For a mainstream assessment of what the Black Friday strike means to Walmart workers, the company, and its customers, see this Washington Post piece by Renee Dudley, here.


Monday, November 26 followup — The Black Friday labor protests fell well short of being a large scale walkout, but Daily Kos blogger Laura Clawson’s post summarizes actions taking place across the country.

Fighting flight attendants: Not nearly as funny as it may seem

During the past week, we’ve been treated to two news stories about flight attendants getting into arguments that required their respective flights to head back to the gate.

One argument came on an American Eagle flight that was ready for take off. Ben Mutzabaugh, writing for USA Today‘s travel section, explains how it got started:

Passengers on a New York-to-Washington American Eagle flight were delayed for more than four hours Wednesday after the airline’s attendants got into an argument with each other, according to NBC Washington.

Witnesses tell NBC the spat seemed to begin when one attendant was on her phone. That’s when the flight’s other attendant made this announcement: “Everyone needs to put their phones away, and electronics and so on, including the flight attendant.”

On Wednesday, two attendants on a United Airlines flight got into it soon after take off, necessitating that the plane return to the airport. Mutzabaugh reports again:

A fight between two attendants forced a Chicago-bound United Airlines flight to return to Raleigh/Durham shortly after takeoff this morning, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh.

“Our law enforcement team was notified by the tower that the captain had requested law enforcement to meet the aircraft,” Mindy Hamlin, RDU spokeswoman, tells the News & Observer. “The aircraft had gotten about 50 miles out when he reported a possible assault on the aircraft.”

Flying the stressed-out skies

Fighting flight attendants. It sounds like the stuff of a late-night talk show monologue, doesn’t it?

But before we start making fun, let’s at least acknowledge that since 9/11, working in the passenger aviation industry has become an increasingly stressful job — especially for rank-and-file cabin crews. Layoffs and furloughs have been frequent. A job once associated with glamour and seeing the world has changed dramatically.

Flight attendants now are expected to be the front line eyes and ears against possible terrorism. They must work packed flights of passengers who are surly about going through the TSA security gauntlet and then stuffed onto planes with a beverage and pretzels to tide them over.

In addition to lousier working conditions, their compensation and benefits have been in a free fall. Their unions have been pressed to make major concessions, and airline pension funds have gone bankrupt. These cutbacks and pension fund implosions have occurred despite healthy bonuses given to high-level executives at many major airlines.

I don’t know anything about the individual flight attendants involved in these arguments. And regardless of the stressors they’re facing, the safety risks involved in these behaviors likely justify disciplinary measures.

That said, instead of joking about “cat fights in the air,” we should consider the strong possibility that stressful working conditions and sharp cuts in compensation are fueling tensions between these workers and making it more likely that similar incidents will occur.

Hey Apple, start paying your store workers a decent wage

During the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of attending three free workshops at the Apple Store in Boston’s Back Bay. There I’ve learned how to better use my various Apple gadgets. Each workshop — taught by different customer service specialists — was interesting, informative, and useful.

For people like me who don’t like reading the instructions but lack an instinctive feel for anything digital, the workshops are an easy way to get more value out of my purchases.

Too bad that Apple doesn’t reward its store workers for the value they bring to the company.

Great workers, low pay

As reported in an in-depth article by David Segal in Sunday’s New York Times, these store workers aren’t paid very well. In fact, especially given how much value they create for the company, their compensation is terrible:

About 30,000 of the 43,000 Apple employees in this country work in Apple Stores, as members of the service economy, and many of them earn about $25,000 a year.

…By the standards of retailing, Apple offers above average pay — well above the minimum wage of $7.25 and better than the Gap, though slightly less than Lululemon, the yoga and athletic apparel chain, where sales staff earn about $12 an hour. The company also offers very good benefits for a retailer, including health care, 401(k) contributions and the chance to buy company stock, as well as Apple products, at a discount.

But Apple is not selling polo shirts or yoga pants. Divide revenue by total number of employees and you find that last year, each Apple store employee — that includes non-sales staff like technicians and people stocking shelves — brought in $473,000.

Labor market experts quoted in the piece observe that Apple deliberately sets its compensation so that most workers will not stay for a long time. However, even Apple must be self-conscious about their wages, because they announced pay hikes soon after the Times began investigating their compensation structure for store workers.

A global pattern of using cheap labor

Apple’s store workers aren’t the only ones who are underpaid. As Charles Duhigg and David Barboza reported for the Times earlier this year, Apple also has been using cheap overseas labor to build its products:

In the last decade, Apple has become one of the mightiest, richest and most successful companies in the world, in part by mastering global manufacturing. Apple and its high-technology peers — as well as dozens of other American industries — have achieved a pace of innovation nearly unmatched in modern history.

However, the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions, according to employees inside those plants, worker advocates and documents published by companies themselves. Problems are as varied as onerous work environments and serious — sometimes deadly — safety problems.

The public response to these revelations helped to prod Apple to take initiatives toward better compensation and working conditions for workers who assemble their products.

Who benefits?

I have transitioned to Apple products over the past three years, largely because their interface is easy to use and their products are well built. The presence of Apple Stores to provide customer service also makes a difference.

But as many people know, Apple products aren’t cheap. My low-end MacBook cost much more than an entry-level PC laptop. And while the iPad is proving to be a remarkably handy machine, it’s an expensive piece of hardware.

Unfortunately, the factory workers who build their products and the store workers who sell them and assist customers are the most neglected pieces on the Apple compensation chain. Company executives no doubt are doing just fine on payday, and shareholders have been rewarded handsomely as well.

I’m not against decent salaries for successful executives and fair profits for those who invest in a company. But the situation at Apple is way out of hand. It’s time to fairly compensate the people who build and sell these products and service the customers.

Evidence of economic inequality keeps piling up

Class warfare is a reality, and it is being visited upon the middle class and the poor. The dots keep connecting over and again, and it’s important to see how data, politics, and public policy interact:

The Poor

Whether using a traditional or new measure for gauging poverty, over 15 percent of Americans are officially poor, reports CNN’s Tami Luhby (link here):

There were more than 49 million Americans living in poverty in 2010, under an alternative measure released by the Census Bureau Monday.

That’s 16% of the nation, higher than the official poverty rate of 15.2%. The official rate, released in September, showed 46.6 million people living in poverty.

The new measure “includes various government benefits and expenses not captured by the official poverty rate.”

The Near Poor

There are millions more living on the brink. Jason DeParle, Robert Gebeloff, and Sabrina Tavernise report for New York Times (link here) on a significant group of Americans classified as “near poor”:

They drive cars, but seldom new ones. They earn paychecks, but not big ones. Many own homes. Most pay taxes. Half are married, and nearly half live in the suburbs. None are poor, but many describe themselves as barely scraping by.

New U.S. Census methods for calculating poverty label the near poor as those with less than 50 percent above the poverty line:

Perhaps the most startling differences between the old measure and the new involves data the government has not yet published, showing 51 million people with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line.

They conclude: “All told, that places 100 million people — one in three Americans — either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it.”

The Shrinking Middle

Lucia Mutikani reports for Reuters (link here) on a Stanford University study of 117 metro areas, finding that middle-class neighborhoods are shrinking:

The share of families living in middle-income neighborhoods has dropped to 44 percent in 2007 from 65 percent in 1970, the Stanford University study showed.

. . . The study found that the proportion of families living in affluent neighborhoods doubled to 14 percent in 2007 from 7 percent in 1970.

During the same period, the share of families in poor residential areas increased to 17 percent from 8 percent.

The Expanding 0.1 Percent

Robert Lenzner, writing for Forbes (via Yahoo! News, here), explains that the top 0.1 percent receive roughly half of the capital gains, thus pointing to Bush-era capital gains tax cuts as chief culprits in benefiting America’s wealthiest:

Capital gains are the key ingredient of income disparity in the US– and the force behind the winner takes all mantra of our economic system. . . .

Income and wealth disparities become even more  absurd  if we look at the top 0.1% of the nation’s earners — rather than the more common 1%. The top 0.1% —  about 315,000 individuals out of 315 million — are making about half of all capital gains on the sale of shares or property after 1 year; and these capital gains make up 60% of the income made by the Forbes 400.

It’s crystal clear that the Bush tax reduction on capital gains and dividend income in 2003 was the cutting edge policy that has created the immense increase in net worth of corporate executives, Wall St. professionals and other entrepreneurs.

The impact on economic recovery

Even Business Week understands that widening inequality makes genuine economic recovery even harder, as David Lynch writes (link here):

The public discussion about the widening gap between rich and poor hasn’t been this loud since the Great Depression. . . . What many are missing is the actual impact rising inequality is having on the U.S. economy. Hint: It isn’t good.

. . . Thus the growing chasm in the U.S. between the haves and the have-nots has serious consequences. Societies that manage a narrower gap between rich and poor enjoy longer economic expansions, according to research published this year by the International Monetary Fund.

. . . Expansions fizzle sooner in less equal societies because they are more vulnerable to both financial crises and political instability.

Discrediting the messengers

Occupy Wall Street has spawned a nationwide (nay, worldwide) movement protesting this massive inequality. Thus, it’s no wonder that efforts are underway to discredit the movement. For example, Jonathan Larsen and Ken Olshansky report for MSNBC (link here) on a major lobbying firm that wants to take on the Occupiers, but only if the price is right:

A well-known Washington lobbying firm with links to the financial industry has proposed an $850,000 plan to take on Occupy Wall Street and politicians who might express sympathy for the protests, according to a memo obtained by the MSNBC program “Up w/ Chris Hayes.”

The proposal was written on the letterhead of the lobbying firm Clark Lytle Geduldig & Cranford and addressed to one of CLGC’s clients, the American Bankers Association.

CLGC’s memo proposes that the ABA pay CLGC $850,000 to conduct “opposition research” on Occupy Wall Street in order to construct “negative narratives” about the protests and allied politicians.

Stay alert

These are defining dynamics of our age. When will we get it, and when we will do something about it?

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