Unpaid internships? File under 'hypocrisy'

Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2010

When I was a college student, a summer internship at a big-city newspaper seemed just the thing to boost my nascent journalism career. But instead, I spent the summers as a big-city doorman, filling in for the regulars while they were on vacation. The reason was simple: Being a doorman paid a lot more, and I needed the money for tuition.

A generation later, for a student in my shoes, the situation is quite a bit worse. Nowadays many internships don’t pay anything at all, yet landing an internship has come to seem almost essential. The National Association of Colleges and Employers says that in 2008, about half of graduating students had held internships. The same organization found, in a 2009 survey, that “more than three-quarters of responding employers said they prefer candidates with the kind of relevant work experience gained through an internship.”

I will leave aside the debate over whether minimum-wage and other labor laws safeguard workers, promote unemployment or both. Nor will I plunge into the age-old question of when it’s morally permissible to violate the law. What I’m interested in here is hypocrisy.

The reality is that unpaid internships are a great way of giving the children of affluence a leg up in life. If they really do help young people get permanent jobs in desirable fields, then the current internship system has the effect, however unintended, of reserving this advantage mainly for well-to-do families — families that happen to be disproportionately white. (Unpaid internships are No.105 on blogger Christian Lander’s hilarious list of “stuff white people like.”)

Yet unpaid internships seem to be especially prevalent in show business, journalism, the arts and at nonprofits, most of which are hotbeds of liberal ideals. Denizens of this world, I daresay, would mostly defend state and federal labor laws (to say nothing of labor unions) as a crucial bulwark for the protection of workers against exploitation by vastly more powerful employers.

But unpaid interns don’t fall under such protection. They do not get minimum wage, or enjoy legal safeguards against discrimination, sexual harassment or wrongful termination. And they do not pay Social Security or Medicare taxes to support the safety net so many of their employers cherish. Unpaid interns at nonprofits qualify as volunteers, but hiring people without pay at a business isn’t even legal unless the arrangement meets federal standards requiring that the employer “derives no immediate advantage” from the arrangement. In other words, it’s supposed to be pure altruism.

In a remarkable outbreak of such altruism — one that that happens to coincide with the recession — a bevy of employers have been offering unpaid positions lately. So many employers have jumped on the bandwagon that various government agencies are reportedly looking into possible labor law violations. Federal investigators won’t have to look very hard to find collegians toiling without pay. Washington is usually crawling with unpaid interns, including some in Congress, which conveniently exempted its interns from minimum-wage and overtime rules.

Just as they support protection for workers, most members of the chattering classes are disturbed by increasing income inequality. But unpaid internships are an ideal system for perpetuating and increasing inequality, just like the creeping credential inflation that requires ever-more schooling, however costly or irrelevant, to land a job. A professor friend complains that at his institution, Harvard dropout Bill Gates couldn’t get hired to teach business.

In fact, unpaid internships have become such a staple of privilege that some families pay thousands of dollars to for-profit placement firms to land a spot for their kids, something lower-income families can’t possibly afford. The practice of requiring interns to pay for college credit — which some employers hope will keep them from running afoul of labor laws — only adds to the inequity by raising the price of admission. Interns, particularly in Washington, may find themselves saddled with additional expenses for travel and housing.

If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian, perhaps you can justify hiring unpaid interns as precisely the kind of activity between consenting adults that the government shouldn’t meddle with. But if you aren’t — or if you simply believe that an honest day’s work deserves an honest day’s pay, and that society would be better off if opportunities were open to all — then you have no business hiring these kids for free.

• Daniel Akst is a public policy fellow at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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