Unpaid internships and the intern economy: Latest work

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A look at unpaid internships and the intern economy

As steady readers here are aware, for many years I’ve been engaged in scholarship, public education, and advocacy concerning the oft-exploitative practice of unpaid internships. I’d like to provide a quick update on my latest activities in this realm.

I just posted to my Social Science Research Network (SSRN) page a short law review essay, “‘Mass Exploitation Hidden in Plain Sight’: Unpaid Internships and the Culture of Uncompensated Work,” a followup to an excellent symposium on employment law issues hosted by the Idaho Law Review last year. For those who would like a more compact scholarly summary of recent major legal and policy developments concerning the employment rights of interns and the larger implications of the burgeoning “intern economy,” this piece will provide it. You may freely download it from my SSRN page.

Brief filed by attorneys at Lieff Cabraser

Brief filed by attorneys at Lieff Cabraser

Wang v. Hearst Corporation is one of the most prominent legal challenges to unpaid internships, and the case is currently pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Recently I agreed to be a party to a “Friend of the Court” brief supporting the legal position of the unpaid interns, organized by the National Employment Law Project and authored by Rachel Geman and Michael Decker, attorneys at the law firm of Lieff Cabrasser in New York City. Rachel and Michael did a wonderful job on the brief, seamlessly incorporating suggested additions from parties into their already superb draft. (You may go to this link for a pdf of the brief.)

Enjoying post-filming dinner with Nathalie Berger and Leo David Hyde

Enjoying a post-filming dinner with Nathalie Berger and Leo David Hyde

Yesterday I had the pleasure of being interviewed for a documentary project on unpaid internships being produced by Nathalie Berger and Leo David Hyde of Switzerland. During a whirlwind North American trip, Nathalie and Leo are conducting interviews with activists, writers, policy analysts, and scholars on the social, economic, and legal aspects of unpaid internships. Their documentary will paint a picture of the intern economy on a global scale. I was so impressed with their knowledge and depth of understanding of this topic, and I’m very excited to watch this project unfold.

A talk on advancing dignity in our workplaces

For those of you who would like to contemplate the big picture of why we need to inject the value of human dignity into our workplaces, you’re invited to watch this 40-minute talk that I gave at the 2014 annual workshop of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) in New York City. It was part of a public program on “Work That Dignifies the Lives of All People,” [Note: You may have to “rewind” the YouTube video to the beginning, as some for some weird reason, the talk sometimes starts at around the 10 minute mark!]

The talk gave me a chance to discuss many topics that I’ve raised here on this blog, such as workplace bullying, the low-wage economy, and the ravages of globalization. I then tied them together under the overall rubric of worker dignity.

Next I asked participants to consider our respective roles in promoting worker dignity. At the very least, I suggested, we can do our best to practice the Golden Rule at work, treating others as we would have them treat us. That’s not always easy, but it’s an especially good starting place.

This morning I was poking around the HumanDHS website and to my surprise found the video! I hadn’t posted it before, but I’m pleased to share it with you now. Introducing me is HumanDHS director Linda Hartling. As I mentioned in my last post, I just finished participating in this year’s HumanDHS workshop, and it once again was a tremendously rewarding experience.

Challenges posed by the gig economy are hardly new

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The Fall issue of Yes! magazine devotes a collection of articles to the so-called “gig economy”:

Four out of 10 Americans work outside of the traditional 9-to-5, a rate that is growing fast. For workers, this “gig” work can feel both empowering and precarious. This issue looks at how we can bring out the best of the gig economy, but also protect workers. From cooperatives and online communities to “portable” work benefits, we can make the gig economy work for us.

You’ll find a few pieces from the issue posted online, but for the complete package you’ll want to obtain a hard copy. Yes! prides itself on addressing economic, social, and human rights issues with a solution-oriented journalistic approach, and you’ll find that theme running throughout its examination of the work world of freelancers and independent contractors. It’s worth picking up if this topic interests you.

The gig economy aka the contingent workforce

Although the trendy term gig economy is of more recent vintage, the challenges facing those engaged in contractor, part-time, and short-time work have been with us for some time. For several decades, this group of workers has been referred to as the “contingent workforce.”

In 1994, a blue-ribbon federal commission, the Dunlop Commission on the Future of Worker-Management Relations, released a much anticipated report that examined, among other things, how workers in the contingent workforce fared under existing employment statutes. Among the report’s key findings was that the legally defined line between “employee” versus “independent contractor” played a significant role in determining who is covered by federal employment laws, such as anti-discrimination and minimum wage protections. Those determined to be contractors usually fell outside the reach of these protective laws.

The contingent workforce has been the subject of much attention since then. For example, back in 1997, pioneering workers’ rights attorney and Lewis Maltby and I co-authored a law review article, “Beyond ‘Economic Realities’: The Case for Amending Federal Employment Discrimination Laws to Include Independent Contractors” (Boston College Law Review). The piece continues to be cited in scholarly articles today.

Closer to the trenches, the Freelancers Union provides policy advocacy, continuing education, and services in support of independent workers.

I would add the whole realm of internships and unpaid interns to this discussion as well.

In sum, whether we’re calling it the gig economy or the contingent workforce, the challenges of providing good work with decent pay and benefits to those whose work arrangements do not fit within the 9-to-5 standard (to the extent that it’s a standard at all) remain. It’s something to keep on our radar screens as we head into this Labor Day weekend.

On immersing yourself and finding the ground floors of positive change

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For many years, I have counted Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984 orig ed.; now in a 25th ann. 2010 ed.) among my favorite books. It’s the story of the pioneers of personal computing, starting back in the late 50s and going into the heart of the 80s. It’s a wonderfully written book, full of personalities, discoveries, and innovations.

Nevertheless, from a distance this doesn’t look like the kind of book that would hold my affection. I’m not a tech geek. In fact, I am among a minority of professors at my law school who prohibit the use of laptops in my classrooms, and I have used PowerPoint only once in the many talks I’ve given at conferences and programs over the years.

So what’s the ongoing draw of this book?

For me, Hackers captures the great pull of immersing yourself in something that matters deeply to you; doing something positive, constructive, and/or creative; and being part of a group of people whose collective efforts exceed the sum of their parts. At times, it’s about being able to join something truly exciting on the ground floor.

Within the past decade or so, I’ve found those kinds of connections:

  • The workplace anti-bullying movement has become a core piece of my work and life. I feel very blessed that I discovered this movement early in its inception and am playing a meaningful role in growing it.
  • The emerging intern rights movement has also become deeply important to me. I’m delighted over my supportive, “senior” role to this predominantly younger cohort of activists.
  • The therapeutic jurisprudence network, only a quarter century old, is about to launch a global non-profit organization, and I am excited to be working closely with a small group of organizers.
  • Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, founded in the early 2000s, is poised to help shape dialogue, research, and practice toward a more dignified society. Last year I joined its board, and I am stoked about the possibilities for expanding the influence of this wonderful network.

Most of the crowd in Hackers found their passions early in life. For me, these pieces didn’t truly come together until my fifties. Call me a late bloomer, but it took me a long time to grow into and find this groove. Now, it feels right, and I’m very grateful for that.

***

You may read more about my work in these realms in my recently published law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice).

 

 

Published: “The Legal and Social Movement Against Unpaid Internships”

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The Northeastern University Law Journal has published my law review article, “The Legal and Social Movement Against Unpaid Internships.” It offers a comprehensive overview and assessment of major legal, policy, and advocacy developments concerning unpaid internships during the past six years, including the signature Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., lawsuit for back wages in unpaid internships, which culminated in a recent decision by the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

I posted the original version of this article some three years ago. However, by mutual agreement with the journal’s editors, we postponed a final version and publication to cover developments in the Glatt litigation. Here is the updated abstract:

Until very recently, the legal implications of unpaid internships provided by American employers have been something of a sleeping giant, especially on the question of whether interns fall under wage and hour protections of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and state equivalents. This began to change in 2013, when, in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., a U.S. federal district court held that two unpaid interns who worked on the production of the movies “Black Swan” and “500 Days of Summer” were owed back pay under federal and state wage and hour laws. Although the decision would be vacated and remanded by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2015, the door to challenging unpaid internships remains open, thanks in part to this litigation.

This Article examines and analyzes the latest legal developments concerning internships and the growth of the intern rights movement. It serves as an update to a 2002 article I wrote on the employment rights of interns, David C. Yamada, The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns, 35 Conn. L. Rev. 215 (2002). Now that the legal implications of unpaid internships have transcended mostly academic commentary, the underlying legal and policy issues are sharpening at the point of application. Accordingly, Part I will examine the recent legal developments concerning internships, consider the evolving policy issues, and suggest solutions where applicable.

In addition, the intern rights movement has emerged to challenge the widespread practice of unpaid internships and the overall status of interns in today’s labor market. Thus, Part II will examine the emergence of a movement that has both fueled legal challenges to unpaid internships and engaged in organizing activities and social media outreach surrounding internship practices and the intern economy.

This article grew out of my presentation at the March 2013 Northeastern University Law Journal symposium on employee misclassification. By mutual agreement with the journal editors, we postponed publication of the article to allow for further resolution of the Glatt litigation.

I believe this constitutes the most comprehensive, informed examination of recent developments on this topic in the current law review literature. You may freely download a pdf copy from my Social Science Research Network page.

Disney fires, then rehires, intern who shared alligator directive

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Weeks after a toddler was dragged into the water and killed at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, a Disney manager posted this sign for its employees and interns:

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As reported by Travis M. Andrews for the Washington Post, Disney college intern Shannon Sullivan faced a crisis of conscience: “Sullivan thought the world should know, both about potential threats and about the company asking her and her colleagues to deny them.”

She shared her objections with others, though the story does not explain how she did so. Apparently stymied, she posted the picture above on Twitter, realizing that she was jeopardizing her place in a highly sought-after internship program.

Her supervisor soon learned of her tweet. Sullivan was fired from her internship and led off the premises.

When the Orlando Sentinel became aware of Sullivan’s termination, it contacted Disney management for comments. Andrews reports on what happened next:

The next morning, Magic Kingdom Vice President Dan Cockerell visited Sullivan himself to offer her internship back, which she accepted.

Disney removed the offending sign, claiming it was never authorized, the Associated Press reported.

So how about some lessons from this little story?

First, bravo to Shannon Sullivan for her courageous decision to speak out. True, we don’t know how she effectively expressed her concerns within the organization before going public with her tweet. Nevertheless, she was willing to sacrifice a plum internship for the sake of honoring her sense of right and wrong.

Second, a jeer and a partial nod to Disney for its handling of the situation. Clearly some manager at Magic Kingdom screwed up badly by posting a sign that valued superficial customer relations over guest safety. But at least a Disney exec, after the company was contacted by a newspaper, made the right decision and handled it personally.

Third, kudos to the Orlando Sentinel for showing us once again the power of the press. It’s not the biggest story to hit the media, but it’s important enough to get some coverage.

Published: “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law”

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I’m pleased to report that the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice has published my law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law.” It’s probably the closest thing to an academic autobiography that I’ll ever write, in that it recounts experiences and draws lessons from the work I’ve been doing during the past fifteen years, including workplace bullying, unpaid internships, and workplace dignity in general.

Here’s the posted abstract from my Social Science Research Network (SSRN) page:

Intellectual activism is both a philosophy and a practice for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation. In the legal context, intellectual activism involves conducting and publishing original research and analysis and then applying that work to the tasks of reforming and improving the law, legal systems, and the legal profession. This article explores the concept and practice of intellectual activism for the benefit of interested law professors, lawyers, and law students.

This is a very personal piece, grounded in extensive scholarly, public education, and advocacy work that I have done in two areas: (1) fostering the enactment of workplace anti-bullying legislation and building public awareness of the phenomenon of bullying at work; and (2) participating in an emerging legal and social movement to challenge the widespread, exploitative practice of unpaid internships. It also discusses my involvement in multidisciplinary networks and institutions that have nurtured my work, examines the relevant use of social media, and provides examples of how law students can function as intellectual activists. This article closes with an Appendix containing a short annotated bibliography of books that are broadly relevant to the topics discussed in the text.

I wrote the article for those who want to use research and analysis to inform and inspire positive social change work, with a special nod to those who work largely outside of the realm of highly elite educational and public policy institutions.

You may obtain a freely downloadable pdf copy of the article from my SSRN page.

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