NYT on Unpaid Internships and Their Discontents—After Graduation

Lee ’10: “If I ever become a famous filmmaker, I promise I will pay my interns.”

Wesleyan is in the New York Times this weekend. So are unpaid internships. It’s not what you think.

First there was the story of Alex Footman ’09, the aspiring filmmaker and Wesleyan graduate who served as unpaid production intern on the set of Black Swan in 2009 and later brought a highly publicized open class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures for labor exploitation. (Footman penned a New York Times op-ed in February, imploring the Labor Department to “take this matter seriously and step in to enforce its regulations.”) Then there was Lucy Bickerton ’08, the latest Wesleyan alumnus to turn an entertainment industry internship into a well-publicized lawsuit. Bickerton interned for PBS interviewer Charlie Rose in 2007. She “did everything an employee does except collect a paycheck,” she now claims. So, half a decade later, she’s suing for the minimum wage compensation she says she is owed.

The latest New York Times piece, headlined “Jobs Few, Grads Flock to Unpaid Internships,” casts an eye on the circumstances that lead to these lawsuits. It mentions Eric Glatt, the 40-year-old intern who sued Fox Searchlight with Footman, but not Footman himself or Bickerton. Its point: unpaid internships are no longer the domain of the summer vacation. Rather, in this job market, “many college graduates who expected to land paid jobs are turning to unpaid internships to try to get a foot in an employer’s door.” And today, postcollege internships are available not only in nonprofit work, but also in “fashion houses, book and magazine publishers, marketing companies, public relations firms, art galleries, talent agencies,” and even some law firms.

It doesn’t take journalist Steven Greenhouse ’73 long to arrive at the exploitative side of the practice. (Edit: frequent commenter John Wesley writes in to let me know that the article’s author is an alumnus as well.]

Although many internships provide valuable experience, some unpaid interns complain that they do menial work and learn little, raising questions about whether these positions violate federal rules governing such programs.

Yet interns say they often have no good alternatives. As Friday’s jobs report showed, job growth is weak, and the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds was 13.2 percent in April.

The Labor Department says that if employers do not want to pay their interns, the internships must resemble vocational education, the interns must work under close supervision, their work cannot be used as a substitute for regular employees and their work cannot be of immediate benefit to the employer.

But in practice, there is little to stop employers from exploiting interns. The Labor Department rarely cracks down on offenders, saying that it has limited resources and that unpaid interns are loath to file complaints for fear of jeopardizing any future job search.

There is the story of Matt Gioe, a Bucknell graduate who took an unpaid internship with a New York booking agency only to spend his time answering phones, looking up venues, and getting groceries instead of learning about booking. Then the article casts its gaze on Eric Glatt, the other intern in the Black Swan lawsuit story:

“I knew that this was going to be a normal job and I wasn’t going to be paid for it,” he said. “But it started kicking around in my mind how unjust this was. It’s just become part of this unregulated labor market.”

Mr. Glatt filed suit, accusing Fox Searchlight Pictures of minimum wage violations. The company says it fully complies with the law and provides interns with a valuable, real-world work experience.

“The purpose of filing this case was to help end this practice,” said Mr. Glatt, who now plans to go to law school. “That was more important than my working on the next blockbuster.”

Finally, the article ends, at once disheartening and inspiring, with another Wesleyan Film Studies alumJoyce Lee ’10, who moved to L.A. and somehow managed to cycle through six unpaid internships, one with blockbuster director Scott Rudin. Lee received no pay for the work, which involved “reading scripts and picking up the mail.” She worked at a coffee shop and handed out fliers for a taxi company to afford it. Now she’s making her own film in New York:

“Scott Rudin is made of money,” she said. “I don’t think it would be so hard for him to pay five interns the minimum wage.”

[. . . ]

“If I ever become a famous filmmaker,” she said, “I promise I will pay my interns.”

It’s an inspiring promise. Let’s hold her to it.

[New York Times]

This post continues a loose Wesleying feature on unpaid internships and their discontents in the news. For past coverage, click here and here.

22 thoughts on “NYT on Unpaid Internships and Their Discontents—After Graduation

  1. Eric Glatt '91

    FYI: I, Eric Glatt, am a Wesleyan alumnus too (class of ’91).

    For more food for thought, check out Steve’s followup blogpost on the NY Times website today. It gets into more of the class and economic inequality issues than there was room for in Sunday’s article, including reference to how this ties into the student debt crisis:

    http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/07/the-uses-and-misuses-of-unpaid-internships

    While some individuals may be able to make these work out for themselves, that outcome makes the overall practice neither ethical, legal nor sustainable, and it doesn’t account for the effect the practice has on other working people who see opportunities disappear and/or their wage rates go down in a competition with free labor. And in the freelance world it’s a very real phenomenon.

    Wesleyan students who want to join the campaign to end this practice might want to consider printing, distributing and sharing this flyer prepared by #OWS Arts & Labor, “Interns! Know Your Rights”:

    http://artsandlabor.org/interns-know-your-rights

  2. Batte_A

    The continued implications in this discussion that somehow people bringing these suits are “naïve” or otherwise “unrealistic” need to stop. The reason unpaid interns are suing is because they DO recognize the reality of the way these systems work, and they DON’T think it’s okay. Challenging commonly accepted practices should, if anything, be thought of as necessary and healthy, not “an embarrassment to this school”.

    I don’t think this discussion should really center around whether unpaid internships can lead to better opportunities down the line. It’s about whether you should be paid when you do serious work for an organization. We tend to answer yes, but then when it becomes clear that employers use their position of power to extract labor for free, turn a blind eye because unpaid internships are a valuable opportunity or some BS like that. So? Don’t we think paid work is a valuable opportunity outside of the check, too? Why the inconsistency?

    And if you’re someone who’d accept an appeal to authority, the work in question clearly doesn’t fit the Labor Department’s regulations. Read the post again. Getting people coffee and groceries is clearly “of immediate benefit to the employer”, since normally the employer would have to address the cost of feeding people either by losing their labor for some time or subsidizing their food. Looking up venues for shows and answering phones is clearly “a substitute for regular employees”, because  receptionists are a paid position and looking up venues is important to making shows happen – this is a clear case of work that, precisely because it’s dull yet necessary, deserves compensation. They’re in violation of the law and the Labor Dept. knows it – they just don’t have the time to deal with it, by their own admission.

    tl;dr Just because “that’s the way it is” doesn’t mean nothing should be done about it.

    1. Guest

      I think it’s pretty naive to believe that the status quo will change. Even if the Dept.of Labor gets involved and standards are enforced, internship opportunities will begin to disappear because of companies not willing to pay. Then many students will be up shit’s creek.

      1. Batte_A

        I think it’s pretty wrong to believe that the status quo is constant. Data (http://nyti.ms/cq9cvn) suggests that unpaid internships have expanded in recent years, and that would certainly fit within the neoliberal economic model that’s driven increased employer power and cost reduction (by holding down wages) over the last 30/40 years. Companies have seen increasing profit margins overall in recent years – claims that they need this kind of labor to stay afloat are straight-up lies more often than not.

        Whether or not companies pay up depends on what else is done to rein in corporate power, but even if you’re right that they simply stop offering these internships, that’s fine. If by “up shit’s creek” you mean “pursuing their artistic/professional endeavors through a multitude of other means” and/or “getting a job like most people, where you’re actually paid to do menial labor”, you’ll have to work a little harder to convince me that’s the end of the world.

        One of the most common (and most wildly incorrect) socioeconomic memes is the idea that things have been pretty much the same over the last 30 or 40 years. Economic power has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of the very few – the status quo has actually become *more* elitist. (Unpaid) internships are no exception.

      2. Batte_A

        Here’s a more succinct response: If you can’t afford to spend a summer doing unpaid labor (ignore this if you’re also working one/two jobs or got a grant, like many students I know), you’re not “up shit’s creek”. You’re on more even footing with everyone else in this country.

      3. Zach

        “I think it’s pretty naive to believe that the status quo will change.”

        I think it’s pretty depressing to believe that Wesleyan graduates should (or do) think this way.

        1. Guest

          I simply don’t believe that – in this case – a few graduates filing lawsuits against major motion picture companies who have far more power than you may want to believe (see SOPA and CISPA) will amount to much change. I think we’re far better off trying to focus on what we, as individuals, can do to work within the system that no one has thought to change until now.

          I’m sorry if you find pragmatism depressing, but I also find it depressing to see the hopes of Wesleyan graduates get crushed once they are out in the real world and find that their idealism doesn’t always cut it. In some cases, and I would hope for as many as possible, hard work and good work pays off. But in this economy and this world, networking and schmoozing and all that jazz is just as important, if not more.

          1. Batte_A

            Yeah, first of all, filing lawsuits *is* within the system. Second, maybe you’re right that a few of these won’t do enough – then that means there should be more action t counterbalance the power of the entertainment industry elite, as I alluded to in a different comment. (By the way, I don’t know if the entertainment industry is more powerful than Zach believes because I haven’t quizzed him on it yet, but I’m certainly on your side when you say that their institutional power is a pretty daunting thing to take on. I just don’t think that means it shouldn’t be done.)

            When you describe simply going along with the current game as “pragmatism”, it’s only a pragmatic course of action if your goal is to preserve things the way they are. Someone who manages to rise through the ranks into a position where it’s up to them whether they pay interns or not is very unlikely to initiate any change themselves, because they’ve spent their whole career (or life) accepting or pretending to accept the viewpoint you’re communicating – to expect a reversal of someone once they’re in charge of the whole operation is certainly extraordinary. It’s a little bit like Wall Streeters of middle- or working-class origin as described in this recent n+1 piece: http://nplusonemag.com/leaving-wall-street

            Working within (your conception of) the system is a solid way to perpetuate it – less so to change it, at least for the everyday college student / recent grad.

    2. Tittieluvr

       If someone wants to work for free, why would we make it harder for them to do that?  If it’s a consensual agreement between intern and employer that the intern is going to work for free, why is that bad? It’s not as if they’re not getting anything out of the internship; they get the credit/resume boost.  In a sense they are getting ‘paid’ by being able to say that they interned there.  If this seems worth it to them, then more power to them.  If it doesn’t seem worth it (or doesn’t *turn out* to be worth it) then they should quit and do something that’s more worth their time, like get a low level paying job or a different internship. 

      The reason employers are able to have these unpaid internships is because there is a demand for them–because the employer, while not paying in money, is paying the intern in resume points, so to speak.  If people think their employers are exploiting them (which is entirely possible), then they should quit, and if a lot of people start doing this, the employers will have to change something about the way they run their internships in order to have any interns at all.  Interns should use their own free will to leave (no one is keeping them there!) if the work environment/compensation is not what they want.

      1. Hi

         I agree. I mean, there is also an issue with the fact that less wealthy students might not be able to afford having an unpaid internship.  But I think this should be combated in ways that are not privileged Wesleyan students having their daddies sue the high-end companies they were working for because they were pissed that they had to get coffee.  Honestly, with all the resources we have at here at school and the “Wesleyan Mafia” influence outside of Wesleyan, they could have found another internship or job.

        1. Batte_A

          “But I think this should be combated in ways that are not privileged
          Wesleyan students having their daddies sue the high-end companies they
          were working for because they were pissed that they had to get coffee.”
          What? Why not? If you can get privilege to fight exploitation, that seems like one sweet deal to me. Unless you’re just saying that this battle should be fought on more fronts than just this, in which case I agree.

          Maybe Intern X could have gotten something else; maybe they tried and didn’t. That doesn’t make it okay for employers NOT PAY PEOPLE FOR DOING WORK YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO PAY THEM FOR, or LYING ABOUT THE SUBSTANCE OF THE (UNPAID) WORK WHEN THEY KNOW BETTER. (Not yelling – Disqus just lacks a bolding option / I haven’t found it yet.)

      2. Batte_A

        (I really shouldn’t be doing this at all right now, so I’m sorry I’m not taking this point-by-point like I would at some other time. I’m sure you can figure out which of your arguments I’m addressing.)

        I don’t see why the concept of uneven power relations is so hard to get a handle on. Employers are by far approaching the internship from the more powerful position. Their ability to dictate the terms (such as by vastly increasing the number of unpaid internships over the last decade) is far stronger than the potential intern’s. Employers for these internships can reasonably expect to fill them, and have an increasingly competitive pool to select from. Potential interns are 1) not guaranteed to even get the position, 2) more often desperate and thus willing to take a more disadvantageous deal rather than no deal at all, and 3) have less information about the potential benefits of the internship than the employer.

        I never argued that unpaid internships were worthless – just systemically unjust and therefore in need of reform or removal. And the alternatives you proposed might work out just fine or even better, but the student/graduate has many more dire considerations than the employer – what will their family/friends/whoever reads their résumés think? Are they going to just get shafted similarly at whatever else they have to do? Are they even going to have the opportunity to do something else that accords similar benefits? You might recall that since 2008/2009, the answer has been increasingly “No.”

        “If people think their employers are exploiting them (which is entirely
        possible), then they should quit, and if a lot of people start doing
        this, the employers will have to change something about the way they run
        their internships in order to have any interns at all.”
        If this is actually what you think, I’m really confused as to why you’re not cheering on or otherwise morally supporting people who left and are suing these companies for their exploitative *and* illegal practices.

  3. Guest

    Personally, I had a great experience interning in the art dept of a major studio feature. My ‘boss’ did a great job setting limits etc on what we could and could not do. As interns we would do basic research and some overflow from set dec and props, but we could never do anything that was a PA job, like groceries. Also, she promised that nobody would be getting anybody’s coffee, which I have yet to do. I really went into it with the idea of meeting people and seeing how something at that level worked. I got extremely lucky to have been there at the right place at the right time to get hired.Some of my classmates have had the disappointing internships where the type of ‘bad’ things from the article happen. However, they tend to be interning with much smaller production houses/films. Music video/distribution companies etc. Honestly I was so excited and grateful to have had the opportunity to work on a project at that level I would have done anything for free. I feel with a reputation of suing your employer the above people may have a hard time getting jobs in the future, but it is important that employers are aware that they need to treat their interns right.

  4. Anon

    “If I ever become a famous filmmaker,” she said, “I promise I will pay my interns.”

    Sure, sure. The Hollywood culture is one of paying your dues in order to climb to the top. You start out as an intern, making connections and fluffing up your resume, and you climb the ladder until you get to the position you want. It’s not so different from other fields. In medicine, you get kicked around before you get anywhere, and in law you start out with a clerkship before you get to practice even on a small scale. The value of the internship is not in the work that you do, but in the connections that you make. The people who are going to make it in the industry will be wise to remember that.
    The reason why this system is reinforced generation after generation is because the unpaid interns who eventually get into positions of power are intent on preserving the system and the culture in which they thrived. Maybe they’re hardened and jaded, but that’s the way it is. Wes seniors, do you not scoff and think “GTFO frosh” when freshmen ask what you think are obvious questions?

    The people bringing these suits are ridiculously naive and an embarrassment to this school. I’m fortunate that I was able to get an internship in entertainment this summer without my employer worrying that I’m going to turn around and sue them after all is said and done.

    1. K.

      True, but its also a system that restricts students who don’t have the funds to be able to spend their time working for free. Thus, the people who succeed are only those who can afford to and have the capital to make those connections. This is not a meritocracy.

      1. Anon

        Since when is life a meritocracy? I’m sorry, but outside of the level playing field of Wesleyan, the world is anything but. People get jobs through connections when they don’t have the talent to back it up. People with certain degrees get ins when those with other merits don’t even get a consideration.

        I think that our generation needs to start realizing that life simply isn’t fair. We can get all of the advantages that we are able to accumulate, but it’s often a crapshoot outside of that. Sometimes, luck and being in the right place at the right time actually has more of an impact than a resume. This goes for assistant jobs in entertainment, when positions need to be filled ASAP. No one will wait for you to move out to Los Angeles.

        If you are unable to take a paid internship, there are many other means of getting your foot in the door. There is paid PA work on sets that gives you the opportunity to work in the thick of filming and connect with all sorts of professionals, not to mention actually learn on the job. Through the Internet, remote internships are becoming a greater possibility, especially in online media. Aspiring creatives should also, of course, be creating. That is the best way to get noticed: create something worth noticing.

        If you go out into the world after graduating believing that the job market, in whatever industry you’re pursuing a career in, is a straight meritocracy, you’re in for a rude awakening when you see the boss’s child climbing the corporate ladder and the Harvard grad with shit-for-brains getting special treatment.

        1. cmon

          the  issue that we are discussing isn’t about “what is” but “what should be.” don’t you want to strive towards a more socially just world?

    2. 2012

      One or two unpaid internships can be extremely helpful in getting your foot in the door. When it comes to having had five or six and you still can’t qualify for an “entry-level” job? That’s when it’s really a problem. <–This happens regularly.

  5. Tittieluvr

    They knew the internships were unpaid when they took them so why would they retroactively demand to be paid?  They do the internship, they get the credit.  That’s the ‘payment’ they signed on for.

    1. Zach

       Well, no. They knew the internships were unpaid on the condition that it offered a valuable educational experience in the field. The lawsuits allege that that condition was not met.

      1. Tittieluvr

        They could have stopped working at any time if the job didn’t live up to their expectations.  They continued to work for free (probably because they still wanted the resume boost, which is understandable) and now they’re whining about it.  Everyone knows you get coffee when you’re an intern.  You either are okay with that, or you’re not and you decide to do something else.

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