Just pay them, dammit!

By Caitlin Kelly

So, imagine you finally get  a shot at the industry/job/company you’ve been dying to work for forever.

Imagine you have even spent the time, energy and hard work to acquire an MBA.

But, hey, sorry, we would love to have you come work for us, but we just don’t have a budget for interns.

As if.

Black Swan (film)
Black Swan (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A court decision made this week, I hope, will strike fear into the greedheads who keep offering work without payment:

A Federal District Court judge in Manhattan ruled on Tuesday that Fox
Searchlight Pictures had violated federal and New York minimum wage laws
by not paying production interns, a case that could upend the long-held
practice of the film industry and other businesses that rely heavily on
unpaid internships.

Should the government get tough to protect unpaid interns, or are internships a win-win?

In the decision, Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that Fox Searchlight
should have paid two interns on the movie “Black Swan,” because they
were essentially regular employees.

The judge noted that these internships did not foster an educational
environment and that the studio received the benefits of the work. The
case could have broad implications. Young people have flocked to
internships, especially against the backdrop of a weak job market.

Employment experts estimate that undergraduates work in more than one
million internships a year, an estimated half of which are unpaid,
according to Intern Bridge, a research firm.

Few things piss me off quite as much as people with money who keep insisting to those without it that they’re broke. Sooooooooory!

In my entire career as a photographer and journalist — including high school when I was paid $100 apiece for three magazine cover photos — I’ve very rarely given my skills unpaid to people who still themselves are collecting paychecks and paying to rent office space and keep their lights on —  yet somehow can’t scrape together enough shekels to pay for the hard work of people too young/poor/vulnerable/desperate who are willing or able to work without payment.

The larger issue, equally unfair, is that asking people to work for no money means that only those with money already (parental subsidies, usually) can even afford to take an unpaid internship.

You value their labor or you do not. Every penny you save on their free work is a penny added to your profits.

Fair? Really?

No one else in this economy gives it away! Not my plumber or electrician or physicians or dentist or massage therapist.

My husband was born into a family with very little money; his father was a Baptist preacher in a small city in New Mexico. He attended university on full scholarship and started working — for pay — right out of college as a news photographer. He would not have had the means to afford to work in his desired field without payment.

He has risen to a terrific job, with a pension, and helped The New York Times win a Pulitzer Prize for their 9/11 photos. What if he’d been shut out from the very start?

I have an assistant, part-time, who helps me with my writing — doing research, setting up interviews and meetings, whatever I need. I pay her. I pay the woman who cleans our apartment. I wouldn’t dare insult either of them by suggesting they work for free, because, “Hey, it’s great experience!”

I don’t make a ton of money, either. But if I want someone to work for/with me, I will pay them. The opportunity cost is another burden every intern faces if they give their time away to a cheapskate when they could be making money in those same uncompensated hours.

In a shitty economy where millions are desperate for work, for a job, referral or credential, I think requiring someone to work without payment is obscene.

Have you done an unpaid internship?

Was it worth it?

45 thoughts on “Just pay them, dammit!

  1. A favorite “writing job” listing I’ve seen recently–unpaid (natch), prefer recent college grads (age) and they’d like you to have your own Macbook Pro laptop as well.

  2. Jessica Slavin

    Yes! Favorite part: “The larger issue, equally unfair, is that asking people to work for no money means that only those with money already (parental subsidies, usually) can even afford to take an unpaid internship.”

    One of those invisible “normals,” privileges of class, that reproduce and increase inequality in our economy, imho. When people blame the poor for being poor, funny how they forget about factors like this one.

    Not to mention, how is the economy going to keep turning if the new generation is largely unpaid??

    1. Thanks!

      I’m currently reading (and loving — and hope to HELL he paid all his researchers!) Joseph Stiglitz’ new book The Price of Inequality.

      The 1 percent don’t give a damn. The poor are flies on their Maybach windshield. I think the people who care the most — funny thing — have the least political and economic power.


  3. I have never worked for free, but I avoided internships in my major in university because the things I wanted to do wouldn’t pay anything, even a stipend. I did intern at NATO, but it was largely a way to spend the summer and didn’t really contribute to my longterm goals. My area of interest had no paid opportunities that paid. My husband on the other hand got an internship (as an undergrad) that paid almost as much per hour as my full time job. Snarl. I was proud of him and goodness knows glad about the extra money, but I’m still a bit bitter that if I had wanted to intern in the things I was interested in pursuing, I’d have had to leave paying employment and pay my own way. I lucked out with really good student jobs that gave me a lot of experience, but it wasn’t the same thing as an internship which might have gotten me into a field I wanted vs. the PD after graduation.

    1. There is a long — and to my mind, nuts — “tradition” of not paying for interns in the arts/publishing/media and other creative fields. I just don’t buy it. You have a budget or you don’t. It’s very unfair.

  4. A few years ago, I graduated college at what I read later was the worst possible time since the great depression for new grads entering the job market. I did unpaid work while I searched for a “real” job. It took me 4 months to find very underpaid work (60% lower than market average).

    I thought I was lucky to find any money at all but I want to warn the young and eager people who might read this – the only as bad as an unpaid internship is accepting an obscenely low pay for your field. It sets the bar for what other employers will pay you later; they will demand to know what your current position pays and it’s hard to work your way into what you should have been making in the first place (I got lucky in this department recently but many of my friends still have not). If you have no other option, I understand – I was there. Take the grossly low pay. But if you can wait it out, couch surf, whatever… do not sell yourself short.

    1. Thanks for a voice from the trenches!

      One of the advantages of being freelance is that it’s no one’s business what I make.

      I literally doubled my staff magazine salary between 1992 to 1996 — from $40k to $66k to 80K, but only by changing jobs three times. The dirty secret is that once they have you in hand, you’re stuck, unless your industry offers significant bonuses, commissions or raises. To some degree — given that better/newer/proven skills should add higher value — it’s all a bit of a shell game of perceived value.

  5. I’ll have my associates in Journalism this time next year. I’m already working full time and will likely need an internship to help me get my foot in the door while I move on to pursuing my bachelor’s degree. I’m desperately trying to find a way to get a paid for that internship, because I hate the idea of working for free. To top it off, some schools actually charge for the credit hours gained through an internship. How horrid is it that a person has to PAY to work?

    I’m mentoring some interns now at my job with the State of Texas. All of them are paid with full benefits and a salary equal to that of their peers with like titles (Clerks and Administrative Assistants) and I’m fighting to get them every scrap of training I can track down. I refuse to let them be the victims of crappy money-grubbing and cheapskatery.

  6. i could not agree with you more. i had to do 3 unpaid internships, where i actually had to pay to use the time as a class. all for my communications degree. i interned at a radio station, with a crew making tv commercials, and the last, at an ad agency turned into a full time job/career when i learned everything i could and did every part of my job possible, until they finally hired me. had to waitress, keep taking classes, and single mothering all while doing that. didn’t sleep much during this time and it would have taken a huge load off to have actually paid me my worth.

  7. themodernidiot

    “these internships did not foster an educational environment” – this seems odd. just being there is educational isn’t it?

    but to the rest of your post-working for free is silly.

  8. I did, as an equestrian coach. It was a life changing experience, but it was designed to be. … And I agree – why do people feel it’s okay to steal from the creative? I wouldn’t write for someone and not receive payment for it unless I was volunteering an article for a charitable publication, which I have in the past. My creativity is for sale, not for free. … Great topic! Be well, Dorothy 🙂

      1. It’s true. Part of it, as I’ve observed, is that there are so many people wanting to work in the “glamourous” industries that they are ripe for exploitation. They’ll do anything just to get their foot in the door and the people who do the hiring know this. … The music scene is an example. “Paying to play” has become a standard part of the scene now. You have to be very strong not to get sucked into that trap. 🙂 When we were performing, my vocal group made a point of ensuring we were always paid. We never gave our music away unless there was a good cause involved, and we put a limit on that. We rehearsed too hard and believed in ourselves too well to just give our music away. Having said that we never made a living at it. … And the other issue around this topic is the pirating of music, video, etc. I get annoyed when I hear someone boasting how they got a song/movie/book downloaded through some low-life pirating venture for free. But that’s a discussion for another day … Be well, Dorothy 🙂

      2. I’ve blogged on this before, if of interest…esp. this toxic notion of offering “exposure” in return for no pay. It’s as though (hah) some 21st C Medici will suddenly discover you and become your patron for life afterward. It’s just exploitation as usual.

  9. I’ve done two unpaid internships and two paid internships. All of them were worth it. The two unpaid ones were first and I see it like this: If I hadn’t done the unpaid ones first, I never would have had the opportunity to be in a position to be chosen for the paid ones.

    Does that make unpaid internships fair? No, I don’t think so, but it’s turning into a kind of necessary evil these days. There’s something just inherently wrong about free labor. Even if the employer can’t afford a lot, they should at least make a reasonable gesture (and I don’t just mean a lunch and travel stipend).

    At one internship (one of the unpaid ones) my employer actually made the insulting gesture of handing me a 20 in cash one day as I was leaving. Seriously? It’s bad enough to be taking free labor, but then to actually expect me to be over the moon about a 20? I don’t think so.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience. I stick to my guns on this one — when the people insisting you work for them unpaid are themselves unpaid, that’s an entirely different issue. It’s volunteer work all around.

      But if you can afford rent/light/food. etc. — and just “can’t” afford interns, you’re cheap or under-capitalized. Why should I subsidize your inability to run a business profitably?

  10. I finished college with a few years of work-study internship under me, thinking that I’d be able to transition into a full-time job right away. No such luck. What I ended up doing was taking an internship with a small newspaper in Driggs, Idaho. It actually turned out to be a wonderful experience, and during a conversation with my then-boss, she asked me why I thought they got such great interns (me and previous hires).

    The answer was simple: they paid. $400 a week wasn’t riches, but it was enough for me to take care of myself without bumming off my parents, and the fact that they respected my work enough to pay me for it (it should be noted that this small fledgling newspaper was hardly rich and worked on a week-to-week budget) caused me to work much harder than I would have if the thought, “it’s all volunteer anyway,” had been in the back of my mind. If a newspaper with as constrained a budget as my first could afford to pay the equivalent of $10/hour for a degree-holding intern, then a corporation like Fox should certainly be able to do the same.

    1. Thanks for sharing these details — it really helps to put this into perspective from both sides of the table, employer and employee.

      If someone wants me to volunteer my time (and I do, for two specific writers’ groups), they ask me knowing that it’s a favor that brings with it an opportunity cost; i.e. the chance for me to make money doing something else (possibly quite lucrative) with those same hours. When someone with a budget for the rest of their business suggests I work without compensation, they are doing the same thing, but do not seem to grasp that this is a FAVOR to them…and the return is…?

      I think this exchange of experience for no money is tacky, nasty and offensive, clearly. People will often try to take advantage of everyone who is desperate. The trick is not to be desperate!

      1. Yes, and remaining non-desperate can be hard for recent grads who are being dumped into a nonexistent job market to compete with people who have years of experience in the field. I lived with my parents for six months after graduation substitute teaching while job searching, and it was pretty demoralizing to send out application after application without hearing anything back.

        But it was definitely worth holding out for someone who would pay for my skills and help me to improve them. Though I didn’t have any full-time experience yet, the fact was that I had two college degrees and the talent to succeed; it wouldn’t be right for someone to expect me to use those assets for their company while living off my savings.

        I’m pretty blessed with the way it worked out for me, and by the way I would highly recommend that people trying to get started in journalism head west. For a variety of reasons, it seems to be easier to get an entry-level job here, and a smaller pool of newspapers makes it easier to win awards that bolster your resume. I won two Idaho Press Club awards for work I did during my first five months in journalism!

      2. Congrats!

        I think being flexible is a huge part of the battle. I suspect too many fresh grads have been told from birth that they are special snowflakes and being shoved into a nasty job market comes as a hell of a shock.

      3. I have a journalist friend who I’ve talked to a lot, and we’ve kind of agreed that either you have to be willing to do whatever you need to do to live where you want to or live wherever you have to live to do what you want. Graduating is kind of like starting from square one, because no matter how awesome you are in college, you’re still at the bottom of the pile in the career world.

        Humility is definitely a huge part of it. I had to suck it up and decide that I’m really not awesome enough to land a fancy job right out of school. So I did the internship thing (which was fantastic, by the way, because there are few better places to work than in the shadow of the Grand Teton), and, five months later, land a real job. Next step: figure out how to move back to Virginia!

      4. Good for you. My husband started out in a teeny tiny town — San Angelo, Texas to Denver to the NYT, but he interned one summer in Twin Falls, Idaho, which was no picnic for a Hispanic man. He did what he had to do.

        There are several decent papers in Virginia…and at this point, probably plenty of online/digital opp’s as well.

  11. I worked two unpaid internships in college, and I’m not one of the 1%. I did it while working 2-3 other jobs to pay for college and living expenses and taking classes full time. It is doable if you really want it; it just sucks along the way. And, after I graduated 2 years ago, I have seen the fruit of my unpaid internships: I have actually been hired paid work for one of the companies I interned for, and the experience they gave me has helped me land several other projects, as well.

    Yes, I’d much rather have been paid for my labors, but I’d rather work for free as I did and get experience in a notoriously difficult industry (book publishing) than have unpaid internships dry up and find that the possibilities of interning at all disappear in their wake. The companies I interned for were small; I have no doubt that requiring they got rid of their internship programs would mean they simply no longer had interns at all. And I, for one, am glad to have had the experience.

    1. Congrats on getting a job you wanted!

      I hear you and take your point. I hope to examine the German apprenticeship model for my next book, though…some other nations seem to have found better and less punitive ways to teach students how to do certain jobs (while learning) without pushing them into poverty at the same time.

      I wonder how you’d feel…? if you had NOT gotten your job, i.e. if all that work had not give you the reward you worked so hard to gain.

  12. I wish I had more time to comment on this, but suffice it to say, I LOVE this post! There was a huge backlash about a year or so ago against a lawyer (I believe in CA but could be wrong about that) who took out an ad on Craiglist offering recent law school grads to PAY HIM to work for him and “get real, hands-on experience,” or something to that effect. It was ridiculous and caused a huge uproar from recent law grads (understandably) who were already discouraged enough with the job market and the rise non-paid internships (great, I’ll get experience, but how am I going to eat in the meantime?). Something’s gotta change in the US…

  13. Very interesting post and comment string. Perhaps a considerstion is motive (of all parties involved) and economic/commercial context. As far as I am aware, here in Australia there isn’t a strong internship culture. However, one sector I know well is the arts sector, which, in the main, is heavily subsidised by governments at all levels. Getting a good job in the arts is very difficult, so increasingly young workers are ‘volunteering’ to get their feet in the door. Now, these organisations are not-for-profits, so there isn’t the whiff of exploitation, and sometimes good things get done through this model. Heck, recently I voluntereered at an arts organisation for three months and totally loved the experience, and I know it was mutually beneficial. However, would I volunteer for a profit-making enterprise. No.

    1. I’m hoping to write my next book about the experience of work — and am wondering if I can include a chapter on Australia, which seems to treat employees a lot better than in the U.S. American workers put up with a ton of crap.

  14. Thanks for writing this. Creating a new “norm” of unpaid work—there’s another word for it—so patently plays into the hands of those who already have that it’s obscene. In the art world, I see a cousin to this phenomenon where artists practically beg to give away their work to institutions, which consequently have even less motivation to put aside budget for acquisitions from artists who aren’t “stars.” All this in return—maybe, if the institutions deigns to accept and, in some cases, if the artist pays for an appraisal—for a line on a resume.

  15. Yes I have. But after that 2 hell months, they gave me some “good” projects that cover all of the internship expenses. And the projects are still continue until now. so, I just think the internship was a trial.

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