Debate: is it time for the unpaid intern to rise up?
Most students leave their unpaid internships with a few bullet points on a resume, maybe a letter of recommendation—standard mementos from a few months spent running errands or exploring the sensual world of data entry. Not so for Alex Footman ’09, who emerged from his internship on the set of Black Swan with an open class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures and national media coverage. Not bad for a lowly intern, eh?
We reported on the lawsuit in November, when NPR picked up the story. The gist of it is simple: Footman, an aspiring filmmaker, claims that his six-month internship with Black Swan was nothing more than unpaid labor (preparing coffee, taking lunch orders, running errors); that “it was not a learning experience” or one that advanced his career in any way; and that Fox Searchlight had broken minimum wage and overtime laws by using unpaid interns without providing any educational value in return. (Labor laws presently permit employers to hire unpaid interns as long as they provide a reasonably valuable educational experience in return.)
So he’s suing not only to be paid for the hours he worked, but also to prevent Fox Searchlight from using intern labor in the future.
That about brings us to this week, when Footman penned a New York Times op-ed arguing for increased government regulation of unpaid internships and active enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act. “The expectation that interns can regulate this practice,” Footman claims, “is absurd.” They have, after all, neither the work experience nor the legal expertise to rail against a system that’s exploiting them:
Because they often have very little experience in a work environment, they cannot be solely responsible for making sure that the experience is for their benefit rather than the company’s (the second requirement under the Fair Labor Standards Act), or that their employer derives no immediate advantage from their activities (the fourth). The expectation that interns can regulate this practice is absurd.
The solution, argues Footman, is for the Labor Department to start cracking down on situations like the Black Swan internship:
It is also clear from my experience that employers are not going to stop this practice if the government continues to turn a blind eye. It is time for the Labor Department to take this matter seriously and step in to enforce its regulations. Interns should be focused on preparing for their careers, not worrying about whether their employer is exploiting them. This will be possible only when the exploitative illegal internships in this country are weeded out.
Footman’s piece is part of an ongoing debate on the Times‘ opinion page debating the value—and legality—of unpaid internships. Another writer, David Lat, suggests that there’s no need for the government to waste its time and resources policing internships that are “mutually beneficial and entered into freely by both parties.”
It’s a solid argument, but also wildly idealistic: who’s to say what’s “mutually beneficial” when an internship like Footman’s is more valuable as a resume-filler than actual meaningful work experience? Ross Perlin eloquently concurs with Footman: “the well-intentioned, structured, paid training experience of yesteryear is increasingly giving way to an unpaid labor racket.”
What seems lost in the debate, though, is the tangled issue of college credit for internships, which none of the debaters seem to mention. As of late, hundreds of companies are skirting labor laws by requiring interns to receive college credit for unpaid work—which, while arguably well-intentioned, usually just throws another logistical burden on the student, not to mention the cost. (At Wesleyan, for example, it’s a mess to get credit for internship work—plus an extra $2,000 of tuition money for the summer credit. An Argus article discussed the situation in 2010, but the gist of it is fairly simple: paying to work over the summer is even worse than not getting paid to work over the summer. Strange.)
You can read Footman’s piece here, related op-eds here, and our original Wesleying coverage here. While you’re taking a break from writing cover letters, though, do sound off in the comments: are unpaid internships inherently exploitative, and should the Labor Department start cracking down on unpaid internships? How might the system be reformed?
Actually, forget it—go refill the coffee jug.