Weekly Wrap: Yes, It Finally Looks Like the End of Unpaid Internships

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Oct 25, 2013

This has been a bad week on the internship front.

As The Wall Street Journal reported, high-end magazine publisher Condé Nast — corporate parent of well-known titles such as Vanity Fair, Vogue, and The New Yorker — has decided to scrap its internship program.

The reason? According to The Journal, its because Condé Nast has been “fighting allegations by former interns that they were paid less than $1 an hour for tasks such as proofreading articles and organizing jewelry.”

As bad as that sounds, it gets worse when you get more of the details. As the WSJ reports:

In June, Lauren Ballinger and Matthew Leib, former interns at W Magazine and The New Yorker, respectively, sued the publisher in Federal District Court in Manhattan, alleging that it violated federal and state labor laws. They plan to ask a judge to give their lawsuit class-action status on behalf of Condé Nast interns.

Mr. Leib alleged that the New Yorker paid him well below minimum wage — in stipends of $300 to $500—for each of the two summers he had worked at the prestigious weekly, where he reviewed and proofread articles. Ms. Ballinger alleged in the complaint that she was paid $12 a day for shifts of 12 hours or more at the fashion magazine.”

It’s disappointing to some former Condé Nast interns

For its part, Condé Nast denies that it violated any labor laws, although the company also refuses to explain exactly why it decided to end its internship program. Still, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is probably a connection between these two events.

The problem with just dropping the intern program is that it seems like overkill, especially since so many former Condé Nast interns believe it was a critical component in giving them their start. As The New York Times notes:

Several former and current Condé Nast interns said sacrificing the internship program seemed too extreme a response, not least because it meant that hundreds of fledgling and prospective journalists would be denied an invaluable launching pad.

“I’m disappointed on behalf of all future interns as well,” said Rosana Lai, 21, a student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University who is currently an intern at Glamour. “We’re no longer going to have that foot in the door.” …

Dylan Byers, a media reporter at Politico who interned at The New Yorker in 2006 and 2007, said going into an internship knowing it paid little or nothing and then complaining about it, and suing, seemed “disingenuous.” For him, the internship turned out to be a gift that kept on giving. Beyond earning school credit, he said, he learned tools of the trade from (well-known) writers  … and also got job recommendations.”

Unpaid internships are a problem — but not so in Washington

I’ve always been a supporter of unpaid internships, and although I agree that it is preferable if the interns get paid, I believe that my own career as an editor and journalist would not have gone the way it did if it were not for an unpaid reporting internship I did on the Metro desk of the Los Angeles Times. It gave me clips and confidence to keep pushing in the face of rejection, and I landed my first job — at the late, great Hearst-owned Los Angeles Herald-Examiner — because of the Times internship gig.

One of the current challenges for internship programs is the fact the U.S. Department of Labor has put a bulls-eye on them. The new standard — that for an internship to be valid means that a company derive “no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern” — is ridiculous on its face because no “advantage” to the company means no “advantage” to the intern either.

One little piece of irony, however: A website named The Awl reports in a post titled The End of Interns, that during the recent government shutdown, “As many federal staff members were laid off, unpaid interns filled in the gap. Although considered volunteers, they were doing the work of a five or six figure salary just for the heck of it.”

Who loses out in this? The interns

And, the post goes on to add:

That exciting opportunity to work for free may sound appealing to eager college graduates wanting to climb up the career ladder, pad their resume, and avoid working at the local plastic flower factory, but from a labor perspective it’s abominable. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be paid. If the government can’t pay the people it takes to run the government, then there is little recourse to stop the rest of the country from passing on their work to unpaid interns.”

As is all-too typical from government these days — whether it be from Washington, or from my state capital of Sacramento — there seems to be one set of rules for the government and another set that gets applied to everyone else. Internships that the Labor Department is all too willing to crack down on in the private sector are simply par for the course when government is involved.

In the end, the only people who lose out are the interns who are simply looking for an opportunity to get their foot in the door of a job, or maybe even a career, just as I was when I was interning at the LA Times.

That’s what gets lost when companies like Condé Nast decide to drop kick their internship programs.

Pardon me for asking, but it seems like their must be a better way that still allows interns to get meaningful work experience without the Condé Nasts of the world facing a raft of lawsuits and Labor Department reprisals. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like there is.

The many ways to say “you’re fired”

Of course, there’s more than the debate over unpaid internships in the news this week. Here are some HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Fired cop gets $38,000 payout for pepper spraying students. This is one of those stories that makes people’s blood boil. According to The Christian Science Monitor, “Former University of California police officer John Pike, who in 2011 infamously pepper-sprayed a group of prone, arm-locked Occupy protesters at the system’s campus in Davis, will receive thousands of dollars more in compensation than his victims did. Pike has been awarded $38,000 in workers’ compensation for “moderate” psychiatric distress caused by outrage against his pepper-spray action. The award is raising questions about labor laws: whether in general they are too accommodating of ill-behaved employees, and whether in this specific case they have been used to support a police officer’s predisposition to harm peaceful people.”
  • The many ways we say “you’re fired.” As The New York Times points out  this week — in both a brief story and highly entertaining video — “corporations are coming up with new ways to sugarcoat words no employee wants to hear: You’re fired.”
  • Yes, the boss REALLY is watching you. New technology makes it easier than ever for companies to track workers and what they do, The Wall Street Journal reports, and that’s bad news for some employees. “Blue-collar workers have always been kept on a tight leash,” the newspaper says, “but there is a new level of surveillance available to bosses these days. Thanks to mobile devices and inexpensive monitoring software, managers can now know where workers are, eavesdrop on their phone calls, tell if a truck driver is wearing his seat belt and intervene if he is tailgating.”