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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Former Unpaid Intern Calls On Companies To Pay Up

We recently spoke with Stephen Marche, who told us that in 1980, only 3 percent of college grads had done an unpaid internship and now virtually every college student has done some form of unpaid labor. And Marche said this intern system gives a leg up to kids who can afford to work for free, while cutting out real paying jobs. In fact, former interns at Fox Search Light are suing saying they were doing the work of full time employees without the pay or benefits.

Ben Weitzenkorn had a similar experience working at the New York Observer. Weitzenkorn worked as an unpaid intern, and wrote a number of articles that he did not get paid for. He says that though he would not sue the Observer, his work clearly violated the law.

The Department of Labor has specific rules about unpaid interns: Internships must be similar to training that would be given in an educational environment, the internship must benefit the intern, the employer must not derive immediate advantage from the intern’s work and the intern must not displace regular employees.


  • Ben Weitzenkorn, former intern at the New York Observer

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  • Elle

    I feel that the whole coverage about unpaid internships has been an upper middle class mirror of  the concerns of the press. I have a friend who went to school (at great cost) to learn to draw blood and take sonograms. She then worked for six months for free as an intern at a hospital, and it was a requirement of her education. That this happens to poor people training for such medical jobs should be examined, but it’s not the children of the press who this happening to.

    • anon

      Another good reason that unpaid internships should simply be recognized a slave labor and made illegal.

      • louisl

        I hate this kind of hyperbole. I love nurturing young graphic designers, that’s why it makes me sad to not be able to have an internship program anymore.

        It’s not slave labor. It requires a lot of extra work, effort and supervision on my part. I have to coordinate with the students’ professors on their progresses.

        But now my mentor ship is restricted to the infrequent portfolio review here or there, meanwhile most design students who want to get paid have to settle for longer hours at The Gap, or wherever.

        (My experience is only within the graphic design industry. Other industries may differ.)

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    It seems that if even one article is published, it contributes to the profit made by the company selling the paper.

  • Guest

    Shouldn’t have unpaid internships – should only allow paid “apprenticeships”. Either a company, or organization is really interested in you (and maybe hiring you), or they are not and just using you (while also giving you a “nice experience”). You can also have a “nice experience” on the beach. What young people need are jobs!!!!

  • Hanskey

    I myself had an internship while I was going to college, studying Computer Science.  Thankfully, most engineering and Computer Science Internships are paid, because I would not have been able to work, 
    and take away time from my studies, for free.  Frankly, before this article aired I didn’t realize that there was still such a thing as an unpaid internship and now that I know the practice persists, I find it baffling.

    The first problem I see with the practice from a practical standpoint as an employer is that unpaid internship don’t guarantee that the position goes to the best qualified person, because almost no one can afford to work for free.  In addition, what employer can afford to provide an “training environment similar to an educational environment”?  I’d say not many honest employers could afford to this, since they would lose productive staff to training interns and interns are statutorily unable to contribute to the bottom line.  To me this means that most employers are probably abusing the system and getting slave labor without punishment.  I call it slave labor, because uncompensated work is slavery by definition.  Third, the federal government provides financial assistance to employers who pay interns that are in college.  I myself was employed by a local small business and part of my $14/hr was paid by the federal government and I performed many productive functions that wouldn’t have been allowed, had I been unpaid, and the work I did would have had to have been performed by someone making $20/hr-$35/hr.

    Frankly, to get the best people for the job, to get more work for less money and collect federal money, and to stop this form of slavery, all employers should be required to pay normal minimum wage compensation ($8.25/hr) for all internships, period.  The current system that allows any form of unpaid internship is far too easy to abuse, since most intern-slaves will make the same calculation as the Observer intern in this story and not sue their abusive employers, because that would massively damage their future employment prospects.  We should end this fiction so that a better system for interns and employers can be implemented, where the actual best people can be hired as interns and where employer can get good productive work out of there interns, for significantly cheaper costs than their full time staff, with part of that pay coming from the feds.

    … Oh, wait, that’s already the case with paid interns …

    • louisl

      So if an employer (who doesn’t *need* interns) is faced with the option of killing an internship program or paying interns as real employees…

      Which will employers choose?

      (P.S. Here’s a clue: It will involve less paperwork.)

      I think the answer lies in clearer definitions. I mean, the current definition dates back to 1947, right?

  • Giuseppe

    I’ve managed 16 interns in my time. Only 3 of which had enough skill and experience to warrant hiring as a paid employee; which we did within a short period of bringing them on. 

    • louisl

       This is pretty typical. This is also why you won’t see a mass-adoption of paying interns.

  • Fxtrt478

    Is this the “new-euphemism” for the very old practice of “apprenticeships,” or more likely “indentured servitude”?  Remember, this country had slavery long after lots of other ‘more civilized’ countries, and evidently some still like the idea.  Let the floodgates open with all sorts of unstated-by-me references!

  • louisl

    The discussion seems to vary with each industry.  But I have experience both as an intern and an intern hirer in the advertising / graphic design field.

    I had two internships, one paid, one not. The unpaid was the most valuable to me. I worked full-time (2nd shift) during these internships. An internship with a flexible schedule is necessary for this.

    Until recently, I had about three interns per year, none of them lasting more than two months, for several years.

    In graphic design, the student goes away with a résumé line, school credit, and (potentially) pieces for their portfolio. It takes time away from my normal job to give an intern any work, especially work that may benefit their portfolio. Also, the lack of “red tape” with an internship allowed those positions to even exist in our organization.

    An internship allows a student: a temporary position, flexible attendance, a more nurturing environment than an entry-level position, degree-less experience, portfolio-level work.

    We don’t have internships any more because of these lawsuits.

    Are there going to be entry level positions that open up because of lack of interns?
    -No, work that interns do is just light work that supplements the work we do. Matter of fact, it takes *more* work to hand off a project to an intern, then oversee it for its entirety.

    Are there going to be more paid internships?
    -No, because you might as well add entry-level jobs, and that ain’t happenin’ because of the previous answer.

    Will there be more internships that do not benefit the companies that currently host them?
    -Why would there be? That’s what school is for. A curriculum that directly benefits only the student.

    I believe if current students demand anything more than clearer guidelines for unpaid internships you will see: a drastic drop in internships, or unpaid internships that are more about getting coffee…i.e, things that do not directly benefit the companies.

    In my opinion, the author, Ben Weitzenkorn, just wants to get paid. If he wanted tighter restrictions, than he probably wouldn’t have written an article for the “Real World.”And I’ll re-iterate.. a degree-less, part-time, no-experience Intern is not something I would pay for. I’ll just do the work myself.

    • Steinerbo

      This sounds like the sort of internship that should remain protected
      under the law (but I certainly understand your company’s trepidation in
      continuing, because employment law is the new ambulance chasing, as one
      lawyer friend told me recently). Getting portfolio pieces and
      supervision from an actual working designer is exactly the sort of thing
      that makes your internships a great stand-in for classroom experience.
      Hopefully your interns got enough college credit for the internship that
      it didn’t take so much time they couldn’t also get a paying job in
      addition to their schoolwork.
      In the film industry, where I work,
      the interns do do a certain amount of menial stuff (and willingness to
      do that stuff is the #1 qualification to get a paying job as a PA after
      graduation, so it is sort of a resume line too). But the interns often
      have slightly more interesting work than the full-time admins, because
      interns read scripts and write notes (coverage) on them, a task that
      requires a few hours at a time of effort, and often the paid employees
      will get interrupted by ringing phones, meetings, etc.

      I do think that Ben Weitzenkorn ought to have gotten a freelance rate
      for something the Observer actually published. That, at least, seems
      clear-cut. And 6 months at nearly full time is quite a long time for
      only college credit.

      Some interns out there are getting taken advantage of, but some aren’t. These cases should be a good opportunity to reassess the definitions of acceptable unpaid labor, and define internships for the 21st century. I hope that however these cases turn out, louisl, your company can go on providing great opportunities to young designers in the future.

  • louisl

    By the way, this segment was a little unbalanced, seeing as there was one viewpoint account, and further, opinions from that viewpoint.

    I don’t think you (Ben Weitzenkorn) can have a valid, accurate assessment of the affects of the lawsuit unless you have been in position of supervising and internship.

    Internet comments don’t count.

  • mhleta

    I got a career in television out of an unpaid internship that allowed me to completely by-pass the expense I would have had in pursuing a college degree in communications, a degree that would have taught me nothing of the hands on that I needed to work in TV. I am not exaggerating when I say that internship saved my life and a ton of money. I lived at home and waited tables at night and spent every available hour sponging as much information and experience as I could from that (non-union) station. I then got myself trained in their entry level position, master control, by hanging out and charming one of the mc people into training me. Two weeks later, I was hired. Two years later I was directing the news and technical directing some of the other local shows. I learned how to edit and operate some pretty sophisticated gear. I also got to go to Honduras and shoot footage for a documentary. Did the investment of my time pay off? By a factor of ten, at least. The idea of turning around and suing the station that gave me these incredible opportunities NEVER would have occurred to me. 

    Internships are an invaluable part of the learning experience. Unpaid internships amount to a symbiotic relationship where the intern gets on-the-job experience and training while building a resume in return for their work. It’s a win-win. Where’s the problem?  

    I’m college hunting with my daughter right now, and one of the main things we’re looking for is a school that is well connected to various internship opportunities. It would be criminal if the actions of a few disgruntled and litigious individuals caused these opportunities to go away. If you want a job that pays, go get one, but don’t destroy these opportunities for those who derive great potential value from them. 

  • hcm

    I must be missing something.  My son has had two “unpaid” internships since starting college.  For one, he received a “stipend”, for the other…nothing. He pursued these internship,s as they both provided him with experience he would never had gotten otherwise. For him, having no prior experience in his field, the internships were a way to gain experience. Both were invaluable. Neither place had the resources to hire another employee. He worked almost “full time”, but received direct supervision and guidance from the business owners. My son could have gotten a paid job, but he’d worked all the way through high school and the first year of college. Gaining specific work experience became more important than money. He’s also helped a professor with research at college and will get credit if it is published. Again…unpaid but invaluable. These experiences have helped to solidify his career choice. Let me be clear; both he and I would have preferred that he receive a salary, but he did not have the qualifications for either job. It was a trade off. He could have walked away at any time. I applaud the business owners that agreed to train him. He learned a lot. It took a lot of their time and energy. He’s gotten amazing recommendations from them. They benefited and he benefited. I don’t see the problem.

    • Steinerbo

       The problem is that not every college student is in your son’s financial position to take unpaid work during college. A lot of kids from lower-income families end up working, say, retail or restaurant jobs during the summer or part-time during the school year, because tuition has to come from somewhere. Even a lot of financial aid packages require a work-study component, and work-study jobs are usually not at the professional level (if you’re lucky, you may end up as an academic department assistant, but more likely you’re working in the dining hall.)
      I’m not trying to call you out on privilege – anyone who has an opportunity like your son’s and doesn’t take it is an idiot. And I do think there is some room for unpaid internships in certain fields: See louisl’s description of how his graphic design interns left with portfolio pieces they weren’t getting the chance to produce in their college classes. If such internships are taken instead of a class or two, everyone really does win.
      But in the a lot of industries, internships are basically receptionists/admins the company doesn’t want to pay. Still a resume line, but not really enough directed, field-specific experience that it’s worth missing out on doing the same work for a temp agency and getting paid $14/hour.

  • http://twitter.com/benkwx ben weitzenkorn

    The point, that most people seem to miss, isn’t whether unpaid internships are good or bad, but what the law says and how it’s so obviously flouted in the face of a DOL with limited resources and an inability/unwillingness to enforce their own rules.

    Was my internship beneficial, has it enabled me to further my career? Of course. Would I do it over again? Absolutely. That’s why I would never consider litigation.

    But the law is the law. It’s meant to protect those that would otherwise be exploited but that can also be an opportunity killer.

    There are a vast number of unpaid internship programs that provide a rewarding, enriching and beneficial experience to interns—whether they’re legal or not—but there are just as many where interns function as little more than copy and coffee runners.

    Perhaps it’s time to have a discourse about what the law is versus what it should be. How can we weed out predatory unpaid internships, protect the class of unpaid interns and still preserve excellent opportunities to gain real-life work experience?

  • ValenciaL

    I am currently a graduate student at a large university in Tennessee pursing my MSSW. During the Masters program students have two internships, most of which are unpaid. Since these  internships are often with social service organizations, most are unable to pay their interns even if they want to. However, many interns are treated as if they are full-time employees and find themselves running treatment groups, completing documentation, and using their own vehicles to visit clients without fuel or insurance compensation.

    This past year I interned (unpaid) for a hospice and palliative care organization, and while I feel that I received adequate supervision the work was very emotionally draining. Over time, I definitely improved my ability to control my emotions, and learned a great deal about the field, but I feel that some sort of financial compensation (no matter how small) would have helped a great deal- especially since the internship was so emotionally draining.

    On an additional note, I am currently a graduate assistant for my university. Graduate Assistants at this university work 10 hours per week and are given a stipend and tuition waiver. However, the grant I work under is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, not the university. I work the same amount of hours as all other graduate assistants, but am paid only $10 per hour (much less than the stipend other GAs receive) and do not receive a tuition waiver.

    The university has refused to provide a tuition waiver since it does not fund the grant I work for. However, the grant from the RWJF will save the university over $75,000.00 over the next two years. I do not understand why GAs such as myself are punished in this manner when their professors did the extra work to receive outside funding. Not only has the university already received the recognition and respect that comes from being awarded a grant from the RWJF, it will also benefit from the publishing of our research once it is finished. I find it unjust that the university should benefit from my work even though I am not compensated in a manner equal to my peers.

  • Mariya Todorova

    Nobody argues that internships benefit the students, but unpaid internships definitely cut the poor people out and place the people who cannot afford to work for free at a disadvantage. I did not complete a single internship before I finished my bachelor’s and my two master’s degrees, because I couldn’t afford to stop working. I have been offered many unpaid positions and it sucked because they were interesting. Unpaid internships should be more clearly regulated and even made illegal.

  • Guest

    To provide perspective, I have interned for the Observer. Besides the occasional transcription, you basically function as a volunteer freelancer: making up your own hours, writing stories based on your own initiative, etc. (There were also slight inaccuracies in Mr. Weitzenkorn’s description of his work.) Legality aside, I think it’s a bit disingenuous to make oneself a martyr figure when the work was enjoyable and makes him a very attractive candidate for future jobs.

  • Mrmarket

    In some cases a “Paid intern” is considered an headcount where a non-paid intern is not.  If regulations go in then those who pay interns today still will and those who don’t will not have interns.  No one is forcing anyone to become an intern.   People are doing to gain experience – if not – then they should not do the internship.  (Or pick a career where they pay interns.)

  • Bill Marston LEED AP

    As a type 1 diabetic since 1963, I learned early on how to handle it in order to avoid “the complications” (early kidney failure, retinal death/blindness, nerve death in particular peripheral  neuropathy – lack of feeling & small motor control on toes, fingers, and beyond, cardiovascular disease) all of these occurring at a far greater frequency, or far greater risk, than normal.

    Despite the fact that I have had virtually no 9-1-1 type emergencies nor any passing out into unconsciousness, and have NO complications other than a trifling 2 fingertips on each hand. HOWEVER, it has ruined my emotional psychological health, my marriage of 40 years, my employability… some 15 years ago as a i chaired a project meeting as Director of constr & facilities for a top 10 med school, the primary “client” was burning in being offended when I had turned over the floor to one of the major players (some 10 of us: professors, financial officers, architect, contractors, etc.). As soon as it was underway, I pulled out my Blood Glucose meter (it does not really matter which brand or model you use – in that they ALL do  a nominally perfect job of giving you accurate results).

    It was a 7 – 7:30 - 8AM meeting, my life was hectic that morning, and the client went silent in the midst of speaking, and just STARED at me on the opposite end of the table. I was not looking up during those few seconds of needling my finger tip and applying the tiny drop of blood to the end of the BG test strip — when I looked up it was that burning searing hateful face 9 feet away…

    … virtually the next day I was fired. I was told it was over performance failures, and sure, like anyone I was not perfect. But no earlier performance interviews, no warnings… 


    And I have ALWAYS been one to be “open” about having IDDM (Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus) or Type 1 – in my own SELF DEFENSE. I knew that the more people to have had even one such “educational” 5-minute conversation with  a Type 1 would have a significantly greater chance of doing the RIGHT thing when with a dangerously low-BG person.

  • Bill Marston LEED AP

    OOPS!  SORRY!  I posted my type 1 diabetes story HERE instead of on the Kurt Anderson interview page!! Can a techie at Here and Now move it, and erase this note of admission & apology? TIA!

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