Friday, June 14, 2013

Internships in the Spotlight – Are they Abusive or Not?

Just over one year ago I wrote a post about internships, which were starting to get controversial.  I made the point that they were fine even at below minimum-wage levels, if and only if they consistently led to normally paid positions in that field.  In many areas, experience is king, and an internship can be a legitimate, accepted way of getting that.  Yet when chances of getting a regular job afterwards are small, they become exploitative.  That issue was discussed and debated that week in The New York Times’s Sunday Dialogue section. 

This past week there has been a flurry of articles about internships.  Thomas Friedman, also in the Times, referred in his Sunday column to what started it, a New Yorker cartoon of a graduation speaker saying it was “an intern-eat-intern world out there.”  Friedman’s column was not on those positions as such, but advocated them, though mentioning the view that unpaid ones might be only afforded by “rich kids.”  (That is reminiscent of Olympics history, of all things.  In case you were wondering why they traditionally claimed to want only “amateur” athletes, that had nothing to do with the purity of competition unsullied by money – it was to exclude people in the working classes who could not pursue their sports full-time without being paid.) 

Matthew Yglesias, writing in Slate on Wednesday, addressed this “rich kids” problem and concluded, that although unpaid jobs were unfair in that way, the alternative, of not only uncompensated but “negative-salary training” at graduate school, was worse.

Then came coverage of the Fox Searchlight Pictures case, reported on by Katie McDonough in Salon.  That company had been hiring “production interns” whose work responsibilities “consisted primarily of basic chores like taking out the trash and picking up lunch orders for paid staff,” and thus were gaining little understanding of the movie-studio business.   A Manhattan judge ruled on Tuesday  that the positions should have been paid, and not only found Fox Searchlight in violation of minimum wage laws, but granted class status to other interns there, something denied in the previous similar case. 

The next day, Blair Hickman and Jeremy B. Merrill, also in Slate, parsed this judicial result in an essay titled “Is this the end of unpaid internships?”  They didn’t really address the title issue, but commented that the standards for internships are now higher, that employers must gain little from interns’ work, and that neither college credit being granted nor the workers profiting nonfinancially otherwise were enough to allow these jobs to be unpaid.   Even an intern getting “primary benefit” from a position is no longer sufficient, if the employer benefits as well.

So where are we with internships now?  With the Fox Searchlight ruling as a precedent, unpaid people will probably only, as David Yamada put it, “pad around after someone all day and go home.”  Any work in which, as the law puts it, gets their employers “immediate advantage,” must be paid.  The ruling will be appealed, so may not stand, but until then it is the case law that can be invoked in any similar dispute.    

Is this ruling good or bad?  Mainly it is good.  Although I am no advocate of squeezing employers, whether by recently often-mentioned means such as raising the minimum wage or making discrimination against long-employed people illegal, having someone provide free coffee-fetching service in the false hope of catching on in the field is unethical or worse.  With huge numbers of people willing to work at intern positions, the abuse potential is there and will be naturally tempting for any organization looking to cut costs. 

On the other side, this judgment may be a step too far.  Neither article on it discussed the job prospects for former Fox Searchlight interns.  That is not only one consideration, it is by far the largest one.  Almost thirty years ago I had what was called “Field Study” with a technical college, which consisted of my going to an information technology office and doing programming and other light, even unrelated, work there.  Not only was it unpaid but it cost me tuition money, and the employer certainly got primary benefit from what I did.  Yet I was happy with the proposition, as I did learn a lot about IT employees and installations, and ended up, with that experience on my résumé, landing a permanent position in the field.  The difference was that the jobs were out there, and someone with my credentials, including this internship of sorts, could get one.  When that is the case, there will be few Fox Searchlight-like complaints.   Consistent ability to lead to a good, permanent job, not how the organization gains, is how internships, indeed better financially for all than extra education, should be legally evaluated.  That is what the appeals court should rule.

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