Unpaid internships: The beginning of the end?

The Week
Now, now, let's not get too excited.
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Now, now, let's not get too excited.

A game-changing court ruling may scare "potential intern abusers into paying their summer or short-term staffers some actual money"

We may be seeing "the beginning of the end of the unpaid internship," said Ross Perlin at TIME. Last week, a federal judge ruled that film company Fox Searchlight broke the law by not paying two interns who worked on its Oscar-nominated movie Black Swan. Just days later, two former interns at magazine publisher Condé Nast filed a suit claiming that they were each paid less than a dollar an hour for their summer internships. Such exploitation has been widespread since the financial crisis, with unpaid internships "turning the entry-level job into an endangered species," Perlin says. This practice exploits the interns themselves, but it also shuts out "the poor and working class from a whole range of fields and opportunities," since without the backing of well-off parents they can't afford to work for nothing. Most interns are "afraid to stick their necks out" for fear of damaging their budding careers. Hopefully, Perlin says, the Black Swan ruling (which Fox may appeal) will turn the tide. For too long, we've allowed "a well-intentioned corporate recruiting and training tool" to become "a capitalist's dream" — free white-collar labor.

"The current arrangement between employers and unpaid interns is neither fair nor sustainable," said Hanna Trudo at ProPublica. I should know — "over the past several years, I have held six internship positions," half of them unpaid. Some of my fellow interns "juggled multiple jobs or sought government assistance to make ends meet." By setting up these exploitative programs, employers are "contributing to a failing system in which people on the lowest level of a professional chain are presented with two options: make do or get out." It has forced many talented people with promising futures to pack up and go home.

This ruling should make "corporations re-examine their internship programs," said Rebecca Greenfield at The Atlantic. As the judge pointed out, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, interns — not their employers — must be the "primary beneficiaries" of the relationship; the internship should involve academic or vocational training; and the duties can't replace those of regular, salaried employees. Sound familiar to any former interns? I didn't think so. Let's hope this judgment scares "potential intern abusers into paying their summer or short-term staffers some actual money."

Be careful what you wish for, said Matthew Yglesias at Slate. Sure, it would be great if companies not only paid interns, but also offered opportunities "to kids from working-class families, to kids who went to more obscure public colleges as well as the most elite schools, and of course paid attention to ethnic, racial, and gender diversity." But if you think cracking down on unpaid internships in struggling industries like journalism will cause "a blossoming of paid" ones, dream on. It's more likely that "we'll replace zero-salary work/training positions with what amounts to negative-salary training in the form of graduate school." In sectors like journalism, "requiring someone to spend a year or two paying many thousands of dollars to a school" is going to create a much larger barrier to entry than asking someone to spend a couple of summers working for free.

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