When our economy began to tank sometime around 2007, and jobs became more and more scarce, there appeared an incredible spate of “internships.” I use those quotation marks because these “internships” – for all kinds of jobs, in both the corporate and non-profit sectors – were unpaid. I know many people, especially young people in their 20s, who took these internships because there were so few other, paying jobs. Even though our economy is doing better, this practice of non-paying internships continues.
Unless the internship is truly that – a position that is more about education, and that doesn’t take the place of “real” work or a “real” worker – not paying interns is wage theft, pure and simple. It shocks me that companies and organizations – especially ones who deem themselves “progressive” – could engage in such a sickening practice.
As a small business owner myself, I completely understand all of the stresses that come along with a bad economy, and keeping good staff and being able to pay them properly is a big concern. But even when we were in an economic crunch, we never, ever, had unpaid interns. I believe if you can’t afford to pay someone at least minimum wage – which in NY is now $8.75/hr – don’t hire interns. Simple.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for unpaid internships, which provide a true learning experience for the intern.
But that’s not what’s going on here.
What seems to be happening is that we are turning the workplace into some kind of neo-feudalistic society (That’s a phrase coined in our office by Senior Account Executive Sonya Landau.). Or, if you prefer, a form of indentured servitude; not quite slavery, but sure feels close.
It’s gotten so bad, that there have been lawsuits filed by interns and a website,, that’s maintained to keep track of them all.
One notable case was brought by two Fox Searchlight interns, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, who worked on the movie “Black Swan.” According to the website ProPubica, the judge in that case, William H. Pauley III ruled in favor of the interns on June 11, 2013, arguing that, “the interns had essentially completed the work of paid employees – organizing filing cabinets, making photocopies, taking lunch orders, answering phones – and derived little educational benefit from the program, one of the criteria for unpaid internships under federal law. Pauley also ruled that the plaintiffs were employees and thus protected by minimum wage laws.” The case was so significant that it was also noted by the website, which does, indeed, consider non-payment of interns, in most cases, to be wage theft.
ProPublica has also provided a run-down of the legalities involved in hiring interns in a piece titled, “When Is It OK to Not Pay an Intern?”
Bottom line: most of what passes for unpaid internships these days are, in fact, illegal wage thefts. If you are doing this, then you are a thief. Stop it.