Internship Crackdown: Did L.A. Miss the Memo on Paying Interns?

Remember when we talked about how the U.S. Department of Labor was going to start cracking down on unpaid internships? The city of Los Angeles must have missed the memo:

Government agencies throughout California say they must take on volunteer workers because of budget problems. The Los Angeles city attorney’s office, for instance, has a hiring freeze, as do many departments throughout the city and state.

“If it wasn’t for this program, we wouldn’t have a criminal division,” said City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, referring to the reserve deputy attorney program in which people like Ashley St. John-Jacobs and 100 or so others have participated.”

Legal issues aside, I can’t understand the choice to at least not pay minimum wage and at least avoid the appearance of taking advantage of dire financial straits.

The argument for an unpaid internship

TLNT editor John Hollon wrote about his own experience as an unpaid intern at the L.A. Times saying:

I eventually got an assignment, had it published in the newspaper, and then got another, and another – about a half dozen in all. It didn’t lead to a job at the L.A. Times, but the experience opened doors for me that eventually got me hired across town at the late, great, Hearst-owned Los Angeles Herald Examiner. And with that, my career was off and running.

Without that internship, I don’t know where I might be right now. I’m eternally grateful for that internship because it gave me the chance to prove myself in a professional setting. It was a golden opportunity for me, and I would have paid the L.A. Times to give me that chance.”

It’s a strong argument. I get that getting a great internship is worth its weight in gold, but why should students have to choose between an unpaid internship and an internship that pays at least the bare minimum?

Cost factors for both

For me, I chose internships that paid money. I was grateful that I found a job on campus that meshed with my intended career and allowed me to pay a lot of bills. Being a college student who didn’t have a scholarship and wanted to avoid going into serious debt, as I was self-financing my school, an unpaid summer internship was just too much of a sacrifice.

Finding a summer job was difficult enough without trying to work around an unpaid experience. At the end of the day, I was glad to have found a paid job that meshed well with what I wanted to do and allowed me more flexibility after I graduated.

Of course, the cost to an employee to have a paid internship should also be taken into consideration as well. After all, the chief complaint of people who argue for unpaid internships is that they dry up because employers don’t want to pay for an unskilled intern.

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That was an argument I could never make myself. At $8 an hour (the California minimum wage, except in San Francisco where it is $9.92), paying an intern for 20 hours of work would be a bit less than $200 per week (taxes included unless I am rusty on my payroll calculations). It is difficult for me to still see how we could go wrong on a $200 a week investment. And certainly the City of Los Angeles would be getting their investment back even if the interns only sped up a couple cases a month.

The talent and moral issue conundrum

The ability to withstand an unpaid internship (either as a student or an adult) has no impact on a person’s level of talent. In some cases, it could be indicative of the level of passion for a particular industry, but many times, it is limited solely to those with the ability to pay their own way (or a combination of both factors).

You could pull out a Talent Acquisition 101 book, but limiting any talent pool in size due to arbitrary, non-job related measures is just bad practice. If a company truly uses internships to try out talent, they will have a deeper and better talent pool with a paid internship. End of story.

Morally, I have a hard time excusing any business that uses unpaid internships and gets any company value out of them whatsoever.

Can’t afford a new person (even at minimum wage) but still want extra heads to do work for you? Sorry Charlie; there’s no free lunch. Unless, of course, you’re the City of Los Angeles.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.