Is Experience Payment Enough? Unpaid Internships Present an Ethical Dilemma
It’s one o’clock in the morning, and I’m hanging upside-down from a piece of aluminum trussing hung forty five feet above the stage. In front of me is a spotlight, a four hundred pound steel canister that I have to lower to the ground by hand before I can leave for the night. It has been ten hours since my last meal break, and a solid fifteen since I reported for work this morning. I’m dead tired, and just about everyone around me is, too.
It is at this moment that I again regret applying for an internship with “real-world entertainment experience”—their words, not mine. These hours of unpaid labor demonstrated the true nature of the modern internship. It isn’t the company providing an opportunity to learn a craft; it is the company exploiting the labor of the desperate. These classic unpaid internships often boast that interns gain experience working alongside leading professionals. This statement, at first glance unobjectionable, masks an unjust truth: Interns often do the work of professionals, but they receive little to no compensation.
Lately this issue has featured prominently in national and international news. This past summer, the media turned its eye to David Hyde, a 22-year-old United Nations intern based in Geneva, Switzerland. The Tribune de Genève reported that Hyde was living in a tent while attempting to complete his internship at the United Nations, as he could not afford housing in the expensive real estate market of Geneva. Hyde indeed did have prior knowledge of the expense and money required to complete such an internship.
However, he admitted to the Tribune,“I have always wanted to pursue a career in the international field, and to do so it seemed that an internship was necessary, or at least highly desirable. At the same time, I strongly believed that unpaid internships are unjust because they further perpetuate inequality.”
Hyde resigned from his internship two days after the news broke of his circumstances. The hypocrisy seemed so clear. The United Nations, dedicated to human rights and fighting against inequality, maintains an internship policy that seems to clearly contradict the values it claims to support throughout the world. Hyde argues that it is inherently wrong for an organization to act as the United Nations did—championing social justice and wage equality while still relying on unpaid labor.
Hyde’s case may seem like an anomaly—he willingly camped outside, so he understood the circumstances of his unpaid internship—but it sheds light on a more difficult question: Are unpaid internships ethical?
There is little consensus on this matter, with many arguing that interns benefit exclusively through experience, but to me, it seems wrong for an intern to relocate for an unpaid position. There have been several lawsuits in the past two years surrounding this very issue. The most publicized lawsuit concerning the legality of unpaid internships surrounded the production of the 2010 Oscar-winning movie Black Swan. The case’s plaintiffs were Fox Searchlight interns Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, neither of whom received compensation for their work as production interns on the feature film Black Swan. Glatt and Footman alleged that they were classified as employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act and should thus have been entitled to compensation for their duties as members of the Black Swan production staff. They filed a lawsuit, which then became a nationwide class action case that represented all Fox Searchlight interns. A district court, presided over by judge William Paley III, found in favor of Glatt and Footman. The court decided that because the interns contributed meaningful work to the film, they should be compensated per hour of work at minimum wage.
This decision was recently overturned by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. Though siding with the defendant, Fox Searchlight, the court stated that the entire issue surrounding interns stems from whether interns or the company benefit from an internship. If the company benefits, then the intern must be paid. The ruling essentially kicked the case back to the lower court to decide, but it still left many questions unanswered. The ruling against Glatt and Footman touched on the fact that unpaid internships are legal if the intern can receive school credit through the internship because it is tied to their coursework. Interns are expected to be trained in conjunction with what they learn at their universities. This could count as a form of compensation.
Rachel Bien, a partner at Outten and Golden, the leading class-action law firm and counsel for Glatt and Footman throughout their legal proceedings, discussed her work on the case with The Politic. Bien argued that the fluid definition of internships makes it particularly hard to state exactly what the legal definition is, leading to an incredibly complex legal area. According to Bien, the legal trouble surrounding unpaid internships stems from the vague wording of the Fair Labor Standards Act. When the legislation was created, it sought to define an employee in broad enough terms that all laborers would be included. Essentially, when the law was created, the federal government intended that it protect all workers, which at the time included such diverse groups as children and day laborers. Thus, to ensure that everyone was covered, the law has no statement about internships.
This vague definition has caused a major controversy: what defines “benefits” of a worker’s labor? If the company benefits more from the intern’s work than the intern gains in experience, it seems that the intern should be paid. If the intern benefits more from the experience than the company benefits from having him, then the intern should not be paid. The Second Circuit’s ruling touches on how hard this is to calculate, saying that there are certain “tangible and intangible benefits” of an internship that must be considered.
However, it is not as if paid interns earn a large amount of money. They typically are paid minimum wage or a low, fixed amount for an entire semester or summer.
Bien added, “There are aspects of the Second Circuit’s ruling that make [the ruling] problematic for future lawsuits.” In particular, the cost of a lawsuit of this nature far exceeds the proceeds, which are usually reclaimed minimum-wage hourly paychecks. As a class action lawsuit can take hundreds to thousands of hours to prepare, it simply is not in an attorney’s interest to take one on, especially since the cases usually involve such a small sum. This leaves unpaid interns caught in the middle of corporate decision-making—they often cannot pursue legal action due to the high cost, and thus they receive no compensation.
Bien added that if an intern feels as if he or she is trapped in an internship, he or she should contact an attorney who can help, often in a manner not involving the courts. Indeed, many lawyers will simply contact the company to act as mediators between the company and the interns. This allows the company to avoid a very public lawsuit, and lets the intern avoid incurring massive court debt.
Jeanine Dames, associate dean of Yale College and the director of the Office of Career Strategy, also highlighted the complicated nature of the Fair Labor Standards Act in an interview with The Politic. Both she and Brian Frenette, associate director of the Yale Office of Career Strategy, highlighted the fundamental differences between unpaid internships in the non-profit and governmental sector versus unpaid internships in the for-profit sector. The nonprofit and government sector, Dames said, is “excused from paying interns” under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
This exemption still raises ethical issues. Many interns working in nonprofit and government jobs (like David Hyde at the U.N.) work long hours at jobs that they cannot afford, hoping that one day this work will lead to better job prospects. This in itself can be an issue. More affluent students often have the financial advantage of not needing to earn an income over the summer, while lower income students may rely heavily on the summer to generate income.
Frenette stated that the fact that nonprofit internships usually don’t pay “predisposes a particular type of student to those activities; those who can afford it on their own,” putting low income students at an inherent disadvantage.
Santosh Murugan, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Bright Future for the Blind, an international nonprofit that provides education to the blind in India, said in an interview with The Politic that an internship is effectively a “contract between the employee and the intern.”
“The employer provides valuable experience and connections for the employee; in turn, the intern has a responsibility to use his/her skills to add value to the company,” he said. He went on to say that the essential basis of an internship is to gain “non-monetary compensation,” especially experience, that has a “more long-term value.” Essentially, Murugan argued that internships are very fluid, and that the ethics of an unpaid internship must be judged on a case by case basis.
On one hand, interns gain knowledge from an internship, yet at the same time they contribute very meaningful work to the corporation. I feel that the internships fill a valuable spot in the madness of a student’s search for work, but they pose many ethical dilemmas. It is not possible to say with ease which internships are and are not legal. They are as diverse and unique as the people working with them. This search for the definition of a legal internship began with the hope of discovering a straight, hard, and fast rule, but I’m afraid none exists.
If these discussions with Bien, Frenette, Dames, and Murugan have led to any realization, it is this: in order to evaluate if interns should be paid, we must ask if interns gaining more than the company? If they are, then many contend that their experience is payment enough. If not, well, then interns should be paid.
My unpaid internship in entertainment did provide me with the experience I needed to get a full-time job, which paid well and which I greatly enjoyed. But it is hard for me to say whether it was worth the 100 hour weeks, and all those nights lowering spotlights to the ground.