Thursday, October 24, 2013

 

Political Mayhem Thursday: The Problem with Internships...



I was intrigued by a story yesterday in the New York Times about Conde Nast ending its internship program.  It made the decision amidst a dispute over whether interns should be paid.

Frankly, it's something I hadn't thought of before-- that some companies might be intentionally displacing employees (or potential employees) by relying on the free labor provided by interns.  Of course, this assumes that interns can provide quality work, which is more true some places than others. 

What do you think?  Is there an ethical problem with a company using lots of free labor through an internship program?

Comments:
One thing I've seen raised in the arguments about this issue is the way that free internships privilege those who can afford to work for free for a semester, putting lower income or working students at a disadvantage in certain fields (like my own, the film industry). It's a fair point that I hadn't thought about before.
 
I will say that I benefit a lot from students working for public defenders and prosecutors-- they really get a sense of how things work, which makes my own work teaching things like sentencing much easier.
 
I think that ending internship programs is a bad idea all around. First of all an internship is not just “a foot in the door” so to speak (even though a foot in the door is a major bonus) it is a truly hands on learning experience and for that perhaps the most valuable course in one’s curriculum, one that would pay back the investment in full and more. In the case of the internships quoted in the article, a minimum wage pay would have done absolutely nothing to cover living expenses in NYC. Those who live on minimum wage in NYC do so with subsidies that take a lot longer to acquire than a summer at Conde Nast (or any other prestigious employer). I think the ethical aspect of internship as free labor is absolved by internship being the most valuable lesson taught by people who are actually successful at doing what the intern only studied about. The unethical aspect of internship as free labor is when the intern is learning to pick up the laundry, order take out and walk the bosses’ dog.
 
It's not just an ethical problem. It is a legal problem as well.

Below is a summary of Walling v. Portland Terminal Co. But one can imagine the typical arguments about minimum wage v. real wages. Conservative economists and the like.

The conservative argument would be something along the lines of, "We at Conde Nast wanted to be good corporate citizens and invest in young people (and others) just out of school. But government regulation just made that too difficult. Rather than comply, we are simply going to exit the market. We will still be looking to higher people with 2 years of experience. And we will find them somewhere, but thanks to government regulation we will no longer be assuming the burden of giving people that much needed experience.

Counter Point: You were not in the philanthropic business of giving away "experience." You were intentionally skirting the wage laws, and associated regulations like workers compensation. Nice try.

Walling v. Portland Terminal Co.
Generally, every American is entitled to the minimum wage for their work. In Walling v. Portland Terminal Co, SCOTUS held that an exception to this general rule are those that work for personal gain.

To differentiate between employees that ought to be paid and interns that are reasonably unpaid--And in contrast to tech start-ups or factories that are labeling people as "interns" so as to skirt the minimum wage laws and/or displacing other workers--SCOTUS laid out six factors that more than likely make unpaid internships legal.

From Forbes

"1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.

2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.

3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.

4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.

5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.

6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship."

http://www.forbes.com/sites/theyec/2013/04/19/6-legal-requirements-for-unpaid-internship-programs/

 
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