Paid in Experience
There is a blurred line between education outside of the classroom and the exploitation of free labor.
By Brian Sommer
Prior to the fall semester of 2018, James Factora was elated after accepting an unpaid internship within the editorial department of a Brooklyn-based concert promoter and publication dedicated to covering indie and underground music.
Then, after about a month, Factora left the company before completing the internship.
“It was made very clear to me that they were really depending on the interns to continue running the business,” said Factora, who identifies as gender neutral. Factora believed that they were picking up the responsibilities of an employee who was recently terminated.
“I said one day I was taking a sick day and they took issue with that,” added Factora. “They called me the next day and I explained the situation and the founder of the company was very empathetic, but then said that it can’t happen again and that they wouldn’t continue to work with me.”
After this incident, Factora was unsure of what to do.
“It was hard because it was a startup, so there was no HR (Human Resources) for me to go to,” they said. “I wish I’d never done it in the first place.”
Internships have become a crucial stepping stone in the transition from college to the workforce. The Guardian reported in 2016 that there were 1.5 million existing internships, approximately half of which were unpaid positions.
Unpaid internships are legal in the United States, so long as they fit the criteria outlined by the United States Department of Labor. Rachel Bien, a Los Angeles-based attorney at Outten & Golden LLP and co-chair of their Class & Collective Action Practice Group, cited this as a standard in a court of law.
“A federal court of appeals in New York came up with a test as to whether an intern should be paid,” said Bien. “Unfortunately, the multi-factor test can also be applied in ways to allow unpaid internships to go on [in situations] when in my view, they do cross the line into work that should be paid.”
Bien is quite familiar with the struggles that come with unpaid internships. She was the lead counsel on Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., which is considered to be a catalyst for the recent accumulation of lawsuits filed by unpaid interns arguing that their work merited financial compensation.
Eric Glatt, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, was an unpaid intern at Fox where he worked on the set of 2010’s Black Swan. The case was settled after five years in legal limbo along with a handful of rulings and reversals. Glatt was awarded a mere $7,500, but Bien affirmed the lawsuit’s effects extended beyond its monetary outcome.
“I think a lot of companies were under the impression that as long as the intern was getting credit, they didn’t have to pay them,” said Bien. “They now recognize that this should be an educational experience and not free labor.”
Bien added, “If someone is getting the internship through their school, I do think the school is responsible for policing the internships that they get for their students.”
This is a sentiment with which Doug Marrow, The Lawrence Herbert School of Communication internship coordinator, agrees.
Communication majors who register for an internship to receive academic credit are required to find a faculty sponsor to monitor their experience.
“The faculty sponsor should be overseeing [the internship], and if they see things that inappropriate, they’re there for that reason,” said Marrow. “We’re here as student advocates.”
Nevertheless, Marrow agrees that internships in general are essential to a students entry into the workforce.
“I remember what it was like being an intern. You have to pay your dues and you have to transition,” reminisced Marrow. “Many students do over three internships while they’re here. It’s really important to do.”
Instead of going into the internship application process blind, Marrow recommends students attend the workshops offered each semester.
“I try to facilitate things for students to teach them the skills they need,” said Marrow. “That’s why I have put a lot of emphasis on the workshops we do … we really try and teach career development and how to look for good opportunities that are going to work.”
Reflecting back on their experience at the Brooklyn-based music company, Factora maintains that they still value the work the company does.
“I still think that objectively, the work that they do is great. I just wish that I hadn’t gotten a behind-the-scenes look,” said Factora. “I don’t want to take them down or anything, but I definitely felt exploited.”