Unpaid Interns Exploited?
Every couple of years, it seems, the news media discover that many companies are using unpaid interns — mostly college students — to do real work. And that this is technically against the law! Well, we’re in such a phase right now and, interestingly, the Obama administration is paying attention.
John Stossel weighed in a few days back and, shockingly, wonders what the fuss is all about.
Do you employ unpaid student interns – college students who work in exchange for on-the-job training? If so, President Obama’s Labor Department says that you’re an exploiter. The government says an internship is OK only if it meets six criteria, among them that the employer must get “no immediate advantage” from the intern’s activities. In fact, the employer’s work “may be impeded.”
Impeded? No immediate advantage? I’m in trouble, then. I have an intern at Fox Business News, and I’m getting immediate advantages from her work all the time. I’ve had interns my whole career and gotten lots of immediate advantage from them. Occasionally, I’ve been impeded – but the better interns did the research that made my work possible. I’d asked my TV bosses to pay for research help, but they said, “You think we’re made of money?”
So I asked colleges if students wanted internships. Many did, and from then on I got much of my best help from unpaid college students.
Did I exploit them? Obama’s Labor Department says it’s hired 250 new investigators to catch exploiters like me. I tried to get the department to answer my questions, but it declined.
So I spoke with Village Voice writer Anya Kamenetz, who wrote a column titled “Take This Internship and Shove It” in The New York Times. “We have minimum wage laws in this country for a very good reason,” she replied. “We had them to avoid exploitation like child labor.
But what’s wrong with a free internship if a student learns something about the career he wants to pursue? I was a little stunned by Kamenetz’s answer: “Employers could say we cannot afford to pay anybody, so why should we be forced to pay the guy who cleans the floors?” Because they wouldn’t get people to clean floors if they didn’t pay. But I guess I shouldn’t expect a New York writer to understand markets.
“Interns are people that come in and work for below minimum wage,” she said. “They pull the bottom out of the labor market, and it’s less fair for everybody.”
So it should be banned?
“There are a lot of ways to fill in the need for interns and the need for college students to get experience. One way is for colleges to pay stipends.” But they won’t. “They will if the law is enforced. Another way is for companies to hire students that are eligible for federal work-study.” Oh, I see. The taxpayers should pay for my interns.
“Nobody is saying that these interns should go away,” Kamenetz added. “What they’re saying is a company should put money in their budgets to pay people the minimum wage to work for them, and that is just the basic issue of fairness. If you start working for free, where’s it going to end?”
Give me a break. It would end when the interns have the skills to earn market salaries. Minimum-wage law and union rules already killed off apprentice jobs on construction sites. Contractors say: If I must pay high union wages, I’ll hire experienced workers. I’d lose money if I hired a kid and helped him learn on the job.
My interns often told me that working – unpaid – at WCBS or ABC was the best learning experience of their lives: “I learned more from you than at college, and I didn’t have to pay tuition!” It was good for them and good for me.
Now, it won’t surprise regular readers to learn, I happen to agree. But Stossel’s argument, fundamentally, isn’t about internships at all but rather about minimum wage laws. He’s arguing that adults should be able to work for whatever wage — including no wage at all — that they can get and decide for themselves whether it’s worth it. And, again, I happen to agree.
But the rationale behind the longstanding but largely unenforced law regarding internships makes sense: We have minimum wage laws. We’re making an exception to those laws for very narrow educational purposes and want to ensure that it’s not exploited.
Obviously, no one would sign up for an unpaid janitorial internship. It’s not exactly an upwardly mobile career. But they might sign up for a $2/hour “internship” if employers offered one and they couldn’t find an opening at a higher wage. And allowing that would circumvent the whole idea behind having a minimum wage.
I work for an educational nonprofit and we would have to drastically change how we operate if we couldn’t supplement our staff with a cadre of unpaid interns. We do provide legitimate educational value to our interns but they certainly provide immediate benefit to us as well. But our non-profit status makes us exempt from the laws in question.
One could argue, though, that news organizations — which are mostly for-profit businesses under the tax codes if decidedly non-profitable in practice — are in the same boat. After all, a young college student seeking to work in the media, especially for a libertarian magazine, would benefit greatly from the experience, connections, and resume entry gained by working for John Stossel for a few months. But, then, so could a recent J-school graduate looking for an entry level, paid position.
Again, my preference would be to let the market sort this out. But it’s not without cost.
My real problem with unpaid internships is not the one the law in question is designed to solve. The fact that unpaid internships are the primary means of entry into the media, the nonprofit sector, and the Fortune 500 gives a decided advantage to those who can afford to not only work several months without pay but travel to a big city and pay their own way. It would never have occurred to me, back when I was a college student, to fly to New York or DC to live for several months. We didn’t have the money. (Nor, frankly, did I really have the awareness that this was the route to take.) I spent my summers and weekends trying to make money to pay for my education.
Now, philosophically, I don’t think it’s the government’s job to correct such inequities. But let’s not pretend they don’t exist.