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.

Elizabeth White’s advice for “Jobless After 50”

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Elizabeth White received a lot of well-deserved kudos for her Next Avenue blog essay, “Unemployed, 55, and Faking Normal,” which looked at the lives of unemployed professional women, many of whom were caught in the throes of the Great Recession:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight.

She is 55, broke and tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

To look at her, you wouldn’t know that her electricity was cut off last week for non-payment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good times when she was still making money.

Now White is back with a new Next Avenue piece, “Jobless After 50? Here’s What To Do First,” which draws upon her new book containing advice, guidance, and resources for those who find themselves unemployed at midlife.

Her first piece of advice is to create a “resilience circle”:

You likely already know one person among your friends and friendly acquaintances who is faking it, and that person likely knows another, and so on. That’s enough to begin.

Approach that person. Tell him or her that you’d like to start a small Resilience Circle to support each other and to discuss issues related to aging and living a good life on a limited income.

Don’t make the group too big. You will be sharing personal information and don’t need a cast of thousands for that (what’s said at the meetings should be kept confidential).

For those in situations similar to what she found herself in, she further recommends:

  • “Stay active.”
  • “Intensify or reinvigorate your sidelined artistic endeavors.”
  • “Keep a journal or several, each with a different purpose.”
  • “Never accept anyone who thinks you’re old.”

Targets of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

In a 2015 blog post, I related White’s first piece to the challenges that often face middle-aged workers who have been bullied out of their jobs:

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

I also cited survey data from the Workplace Bullying Institute “showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets” and noted that I’ve talked to “many women in their 50s who have been bullied out of their jobs and then face the daunting challenges of recovering from the experience in terms of psychological well-being, employment, and personal finances.”

In sum, there is a lot of overlap between Elizabeth White’s work and the realities that face those who have been severely bullied at work in midlife. I have her book on order and look forward to spending time with it.

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Relevant past blog posts

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.

Do more Americans need to pack their bags in order to maximize work opportunities?

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Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (a conservative think tank), believes that Americans must be more willing to move in order to maximize their work opportunities. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, he writes:

Mobility is more than just a metaphor for getting ahead. In America, it has been a solution to economic and social barriers.

. . . Even for those already here, migration has long been seen as a key to self-improvement. As Horace Greeley so famously advised in 1865: “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.”

. . . Fewer and fewer people are taking Greeley’s suggestion. In the mid-1960s, about 20 percent of the population moved in any given year, according to the United States Census Bureau. By 1990, it was approaching 15 percent. Today it’s closer to 10 percent. The percentage that moves between states has fallen by nearly half since the early 1990s.

Brooks offers a provocative thesis built on statistics of which I was previously unaware, and he offers thoughtful policy prescriptions to support greater individual mobility.

On a personal level, I understand the benefits of mobility. I’ve made two major moves during my life, first from NW Indiana to New York City, and then from NYC to Boston. Both helped to open up significant career and work opportunities for me. By contrast, at times I’ve been frustrated when, at my downtown Boston university, some of my students have passed on promising opportunities in places as close as New Hampshire or Connecticut, citing a reluctance to “relocate.” Could my anecdotal experience be connected to Brooks’s observation that since the Great Recession, “mobility decline . . . has actually been the most pronounced among millennials”?

However, we also must assess the reality of what has been called the Great American Jobs Machine. In recent decades, the largest job growth has been in the lower paid service sector. True, marginally better opportunities may present themselves, as Brooks suggests, to people in Mississippi (6.3 percent unemployment rate) who move to New Hampshire (2.6 percent). But that won’t do much to reverse the burgeoning wealth gap and the ongoing demise of good jobs with decent wages and benefits.

Thus, it’s arguable that until we create a stronger base of jobs nationally, we’re doing only slightly more than shifting around the deck chairs on a sinking ship by encouraging people to move where jobs are in greater supply. A greater sense of flexibility and even adventure may help to better match the right people with the right jobs, but ultimately we need more good jobs just about everywhere.

The casino economy and psychological health at work

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The financial markets are in turmoil right now, making this a jittery time for investors large and small. Thankfully, the current stock market “correction,” as the financial analysts call it, is probably not the start of new recession. However, it definitely impacts people’s confidence in the state of the economy.

Stock market outlooks also affect the everyday experience of work. Just last week, I posted an article asking whether the Great Recession has stoked a continuing climate of fear in the workplace. While finances and economics may seem to be all about hard numbers, in reality markets are very psychological in nature. In times of major market uncertainties, those anxieties often trickle down to the everyday experience of work.

What will happen if the stock market is in for a rough ride? Among other things, employers in all sectors (private, public, non-profit) may be more nervous about hiring. It also means that pressures to produce more with fewer resources could intensify. Workers fearing unemployment may continue to endure bad work environments, rather than leave without another job in hand. Workplace bullying and incivility may well occur more frequently as tensions on the job rise.

This is modern life in the casino economy. The wins and losses of those playing at the big money tables affect those playing the nickel slot machines. And for folks in the latter group, the stakes are very high, even if their control over them is limited.

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones

Many members of “Generation Jones,” that span of late Boomers and early Gen Xers who are in their middle years, face tough times right now. This cohort has been hit especially hard by the ongoing economic crisis, with many losing jobs in mid-career and finding it difficult to obtain new employment and to save for retirement.

Decades ago, many Gen Jonesers confronted a rough economy while launching their work lives. During the late 70s and early 80s, the economy was in severe recession, inflation ran very high, and employers were cutting back or eliminating pension plans. Academic studies indicate that graduating into a recessionary economy can impair earning power for years. So this group has been unlucky in terms of both entry-level and mid-life labor markets.

I concede my bias on this topic. I’m a member of Generation Jones, and these realities are hitting many among my age group. As the following pieces indicate, we’ve got a lot of work to do in order to rebuild both opportunity and a safety net. Here goes:

Huffington Post: Why Worrying About Retirement Is Actually A Luxury

Ann Brenoff, blogging for the Huffington Post, says that she’s bombarded by advertising appeals from retirement planners, but the real problem is that most people lack sufficient funds to invest for retirement, period:

My inbox is bombarded daily with pitches from retirement planners who claim to hold the secret to my “dream retirement.”

…Here’s the problem I have with them: They ignore the elephant in the room, which is, it’s too late for most boomers to join their party. Spending less and saving more — if even possible — won’t close the gap between what we have and what we will likely need.

…What I don’t understand is why everyone isn’t talking about the crazy awfulness that awaits us — and by us I mean the vast majority of people who are woefully unprepared for retirement.

New York Times: Retirement May Be Even More Expensive Than You Think

How much money do we need to save for retirement? Paul B. Brown, writing for the New York Times, discusses a new book by finance professor and investment expert Richard C. Marston, Investing for a Lifetime:

Although Fidelity Investments garnered a lot of attention two years ago when it declared that you would need eight times your current salary to “meet basic income needs in retirement,” Mr. Marston disagrees. “Despite the fact that it is very difficult to save eight times income, the goal the company proposed seemed too low to me,” he says.

If you thought eight times current income was daunting, Mr. Marston’s default position will stun you. He says it can easily come to 15 times what you are earning now.

Okay, so Prof. Marston recommends saving fifteen times one’s current income?! Only the tiniest percentage of U.S. workers have retirement portfolios on track for that. The gap between the realities facing most Americans and the numbers being recommended by personal finance experts is bonkers, simply mind blowing.

Next Avenue: Reflections From The “Over” Generation

Kevin Kusinitz is a 58-year-old writer who has been unemployed for nearly two years. In this piece for Next Avenue, he reflects upon being part of an age group being passed over for jobs but too young (and broke) to retire:

Like a lot of people around my age, I really didn’t pay close attention to the unemployment situation until I was in the thick of it myself. It was only then that I started reading the heartbreaking stories of perfectly good workers in their 50s who, like me, were shown the door by middle managers all apparently sharing the title: Executive Vice President of Keeping My Own Job by Any Means Necessary.

After decades as a right-of-center kind of guy, I was shocked to wake up one day thinking, “Oh my God, now I know what Michael Moore has been talking about all this time.”

…I’m no sociologist but I predict if this trend keeps up (and, frankly, why shouldn’t it?), the next decade is going to see a spike in older people moving in with their adult children, becoming homeless or even committing suicide because they will have no other options.

Harper’s: The End of Retirement (subscription necessary)

Jessica Bruder, writing for Harper‘s, explores the subculture of older American workers who have lost steadier jobs and who now roam the country in vans and camping vehicles in search of extended part-time work such as seasonal tourist sites and warehouse gigs. You’ll have to get a copy of the August issue or subscribe to access the online edition, but here’s the lede from her story:

On Thanksgiving Day of 2010, Linda May sat alone in a trailer in New River, Arizona. At sixty, the silver-haired grandmother lacked electricity and running water. She couldn’t find work. Her unemployment benefits had run out, and her daughter’s family, with whom she had lived for many years while holding a series of low-wage jobs, had recently downsized to a smaller apartment. There wasn’t enough room to move back in with them.

“I’m going to drink all the booze. I’m going to turn on the propane. I’m going to pass out and that’ll be it,” she told herself. “And if I wake up, I’m going to light a cigarette and blow us all to hell.”

Her two small dogs were staring at her. May hesitated — could she really envision blowing them up as well? That wasn’t an option. So instead she accepted an invitation to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.

Associated Press: Where have all the missing American workers gone?

Tom Raum, writing for the Associated Press, examines the flattened “workforce-participation rate”, i.e., the total number of employed + job seekers, and reports that many of the long-term unemployed are simply dropping out of the labor market after efforts to obtain jobs have been repeatedly unsuccessful:

But perhaps the most significant factor is unemployed workers “who just drop out of the job market after one, two or three years of looking for work and not being successful,” said Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University who studies workplace dynamics and employment trends.

Recent surveys suggest more and more long-time unemployed workers are abandoning the search for another job and leaving the nation’s workforce.

“And they are disproportionately older workers,” Van Horn said. “We have a large number of older (unemployed) workers who are not old enough to retire, yet they are facing discrimination in the workplace and have found it nearly impossible to get another job.”

YES! magazine: Why Social Security’s Not Going Broke: A Nonhysterical Look at a System That’s Working

Is the Social Security system about to go under? You might believe so if you listen to hard right pundits who demonize anything to do with a government safety net, but in reality Social Security is doing much better than many private and public pension and savings plans. This article in YES! magazine offers a more sensible look at the situation. In an excellent set of infographics, managing editor Doug Pibel explains that the Social Security Trust Fund has sufficient funds to pay out expected benefits for the next two decades and that relatively manageable tax fixes can ensure its longer term viability:

Social Security will never “go broke.” As long as people are working, Social Security will have money. . . . There is now $2.8 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which will fully cover expenses for about the next two decades. To make it work after that is pretty painless — we just have to decide who pays.

FiveThirtyEight.com: Cutting Off Emergency Unemployment Benefits Hasn’t Pushed People Back to Work

So far, Congress has refused to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, a policy choice that disproportionately affects older individuals who have been experiencing severe difficulties re-entering the workforce. In a piece for FiveThirtyEight.com, Ben Casselman explains that arguments against such an extension aren’t panning out:

The case against extending unemployment benefits essentially boils down to two arguments. First, the economy has improved, so the unemployed should no longer need extra time to find a new job. Second, extended benefits could lead job seekers either to not search as hard or to become choosier about the kind of job they will accept, ultimately delaying their return to the workforce.

But the evidence doesn’t support either of those arguments. The economy has indeed improved, but not for the long-term unemployed, whose odds of finding a job are barely higher today than when the recession ended nearly five years ago. And the end of extended benefits hasn’t spurred the unemployed back to work; if anything, it has pushed them out of the labor force altogether.

AlterNet: The Terrible News Economists Are Trying to Hide About American Jobs

The so-called economic recovery isn’t that for millions of Americans. Long-time populist political commentator Jim Hightower takes issue with, among other things, the positive spin being applied to new jobs created since the worst of the meltdown:

So, it’s interesting that the recent news of job market “improvement” doesn’t mention that of the 10 occupation categories projecting the greatest growth in the next eight years, only one pays a middle-class wage. Four pay barely above poverty level and five pay beneath it, including fast-food workers, retail sales staff, health aids and janitors. The job expected to have the highest number of openings is “personal care aide” — taking care of aging baby boomers in their houses or in nursing homes. The median salary of an aid is under $20,000. They enjoy no benefits, and about 40 percent of them must rely on food stamps and Medicaid to make ends meet, plus many are in the “shadow economy,” vulnerable to being cheated on the already miserly wages.

WBUR: Amid, Long-Term Unemployment “Crisis,” MIT Project Lifts Jobs Seekers

MIT’s Institute for Career Transitions conducted a pilot project to coach and advise the long-term unemployed, with hopeful results. In order to measure the potential benefits of providing this assistance, the three-month project included a group who received help and a control group who did not. WBUR’s Benjamin Swasey reports:

Long-term unemployment — which, according to [MIT professor and Institute director Ofer] Sharone, disproportionately affects older workers — is at 2.3 percent of the nation’s workforce, a historically high level. More than 38 percent of America’s unemployed job seekers have been out of work six months or more.

. . . “We have a ton of studies showing that once you hit the six-month [jobless] point, by so many indicators it becomes a real crisis,” he says. “It’s a financial crisis. It’s an emotional crisis. And then when you get to this scale of numbers, it’s a social crisis. We’re losing out on a whole cohort of workers.”

. . .Of the group that got support, 30 percent obtained a full-time job or contract work of at least four months. That compares to just 18 percent from the group that received no aid.

“It clearly shows that the job market is very, very tough, even for someone in an ideal situation,” as “most people did not get jobs,” Sharone says. “On the other hand, I think we can say that there’s a meaningful difference to getting support.”

Boston GlobeHow will historians view us? (registration may be necessary)

How do the challenges specially facing this age group connect to other social and economic policy issues? Here’s one article that helps us to grasp the bigger picture: In an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe, writer Neal Gabler predicts how historians of the future will regard the current American era, and his assessment is not a positive one. Here are a few snippets:

Historians will wonder…how the gains of social and economic equality that were a century in the making were reversed, and, above all, how the country actually became less democratic, often with the acquiescence of many ordinary Americans.

The first thing historians are likely to fasten on is the historic economic inequality in America today.

…They will look at the nation’s…reluctance to embrace health reform that would provide insurance to those who cannot otherwise afford it, its willingness to cut benefits, like food stamps, that primarily help the young and the elderly, its grudging extension of unemployment benefits to people afflicted by the economic downturn.

…I suspect that historians will view this as a terribly bleak period — another Gilded Age but worse.

…And they will wonder: Why there was so little resistance?

What to do???

If any of these articles offered clear-cut, comprehensive solutions to the crisis, I would be highlighting them. Unfortunately it appears that we’re flying without radar here. Furthermore, as Neal Gabler’s Boston Globe piece suggests, I don’t think the American public is sufficiently aware of the systemic nature of this crisis to be able to connect the dots in ways that lead to political consensus. Right now, employment and retirement remain individual challenges rather than shared priorities, reflecting the social and political ethos in which Gen Joners have spent their adult lives.

I do think that reorienting our views on community and society is an important, necessary start toward addressing the situation. Last week I wrote about competing visions of the future, one being a “technological, top-down, service society,” the other being a world of “useful work, peace, self-fulfillment, and appropriate technology leading to harmony with the environment.” We need this latter view to take hold if we are to reverse the rampant individualism and selfishness that soon may resemble passengers on a sinking ship fighting over too few spaces on the lifeboats (with a small few already having reserved seats). Either our better natures will rise to the occasion, or history will judge us harshly, and deservedly so.

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Related posts

I’ve been writing about the burgeoning retirement funding crisis since the first year of this blog. Go here to start scrolling through those articles. In addition, here are three pieces especially relevant to this post:

The three-pronged political attack on the very notion of retirement (except for a few) (2013) — “In America, the very notion of a relatively safe and secure retirement is under relentless attack…. This is not by accident. Only when you connect the dots do you see a unifying force, and it’s very, very political. We haven’t been comprehending how the pieces come together….”

My Labor Day 2013 wish: Good, stable, bully-free jobs for Generation Jones (2013) — An extended commentary, echoing many themes raised here, covering topics such as age discrimination, workplace bullying, and mental health impacts relevant to Gen Jonesers, as well as potential public policy responses.

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013) — “In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention.”

Blog subscriptions

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Exorbitant student loan debt: The biggest “duh” crisis ever?

Natalie Kitroeff reports for the New York Times on the impact of student loan debt on the ability of graduates to rent or buy real estate in New York City:

For young people, moving to New York City hasn’t made much mathematical sense for decades. The jobs don’t pay enough, the internships don’t pay at all, and the rents are prohibitive by any sane standard.

But now add a new economic fact of life to that list: soaring student loan debt. More students are taking out bigger loans than ever before, and in the last 10 years alone, education debt tripled, reaching over $1 trillion. A record number of college students are graduating knee deep in a financial hole before they begin their adult lives.

She adds that some big-name economists are weighing in on the broader implications for the economy:

Economists are worried. Last month, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said that student loan debt was taking the life out of the housing recovery, and the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz called the rising debt “an educational crisis” that is “affecting our potential future growth.”

I’m not criticizing the article — a good piece that includes profiles of recent graduates struggling with NYC’s real estate market and their student loan payments — when I say this:

We are at least two decades late in labeling the student loan debt situation a “crisis.”

Today, you’ll find plenty of news and commentary covering the student loan debt crisis. Elected officials are considering policy options as well. But the problem was in the making years ago, and the implications were clear to anyone who was paying attention.

In the 1980s, tuition levels began to soar above the rate of inflation, while grants and scholarships gave way to student loans as the primary form of financial aid, often at high interest rates. These trends continued largely unabated through the current economic meltdown.

Yeah, I take this one a bit personally. Over the years I’ve experienced a lot of eye rolls and sighs in faculty meetings when I’ve warned about a looming crisis in student loan debt and the role of legal education in stoking it. I’ve also been vocal on the impact of heavy debt on graduates who want to enter public service.

As with most overlooked crises, so much of the damage already has been done, placed on the shoulders of heavily indebted graduates. We’d better act quickly and meaningfully if we want to stop this one from getting even worse.

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