Goodbye to most unpaid internships?


Unpaid internships have long been a path of opportunity for students and recent grads looking to get a foot in the door in the entertainment, publishing and other prominent industries, even if it takes a generous subsidy from Mom and Dad.

But those days of working for free could be numbered after a federal judge in New York ruled this week that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime laws by not paying interns who worked on production of the 2010 movie “Black Swan.”

More: Dylan Matthews, Washington Post, and earlier here, here, etc.

P.S. “There will still be one place to still get unpaid internships — Congress, since they exempt themselves from these laws.” [Coyote]


  • And good riddance.

  • Longer Allan: I don’t value this deal, so I’m glad others will be prevented from taking it.

  • If most current unpaid internships do not provide educational value to students, then they are just a trick to avoid paying minimum salary. Shame on universities that require students to find internship then.

  • in my experience unpaid internships are nothing more than free labour. They may have been a great idea once but now its just exploitation.

  • Walter, I think you might be in the minority on this one. The rules of the marketplace don’t fit the odd duck of the internship. Almost no interns have bargaining power — that’s the nature of an internship, you’re not an “employee”, so you don’t have any leverage to demand a higher wage (higher than zero, at that). The only way to change the internship system is not by interns bargaining (hahahaha), it by changing the system itself. The judge is on the right track.

  • Employees who have no skills have no bargaining power on wages — so we should just ban companies from hiring employees with no skill. Oh wait, that is what minimum wage laws do already — the internship was the one way that the inexperienced, who are often supported by mom and dad, could get some “free” on the job skills without companies having to front the bill for their education.

  • For those saying good riddance, if you’re a student with no experience and no skills, how do you break into the market?

    Haven’t you ever been looking for an entry level job and wondered, “how do I *get* X years of experience in the first place?”

  • Dave and Ben, that was the original intent or internships (hiring unskilled or inexperienced individuals and letting them get a foot in the door), but it has progressed from that to a wage-free, benefits-free, status-free work force for many companies. It’s time for the pendulum to swing back and for some checks & balances to work in the opposite direction, and the judiciary has provided one.

  • not a fan of minimum wage laws, but also not a fan of fraud.

    and many of these “internships” promise a “foot in the door” or “experience” or “connections,” but really, how valuable is it to *the intern* to provide minimum wage services/unskilled labor?

    The idea that you’re going to get a real job from some of these “internships” is fatuous. The fact that some of these companies are switching over to paying these “interns” tells you everything.

  • “but it has progressed from that to a wage-free, benefits-free, status-free work force for many companies.”

    Which the interns still consider an acceptable situation since they actively pursue internships. Whatever the intent should be, you don’t seem to think they should get a say in the matter.

    And you still haven’t explained how they’re supposed to get a job without experience, just vague talk of pendulums swinging.

    “It’s time for the pendulum to swing back and for some checks & balances to work in the opposite direction,”

    The pendulum swinging back would be to remove minimum wage laws and let people work as regular employees for low wages.

    ” and the judiciary has provided one.”

    Which should be something the legislature decides.

  • Ben, I’m not an expert in Employment History, but how did inexperienced people get jobs before rampant internships? Whatever that was, let’s return to that.

    And I would assume on legislative vs. judicial, we are on the same side generally (I’m a rabid stickler for the judiciary not going beyond legislative-passed statutes and/or the Constitution), but I believe in this particular situation the proper analysis is that the legislature HAS weighed in, via the minimum wage and overtime laws the judiciary enforced.

  • P.S. to Ben –

    “Which the interns still consider an acceptable situation since they actively pursue internships. Whatever the intent should be, you don’t seem to think they should get a say in the matter.”

    Correct, interns shouldn’t get a say, because the vast majority of people who can afford internships are those with independent financial support (usually, mommy & daddy). Those who MUST make money to live take real jobs (even if it’s not in the exact industry or business that they want). Therefore, “choice” industries that you enter via interships are populated by those who are already from wealthy backgrounds. Those who can afford to be interns shouldn’t be allowed to perpetuate the system at the expense of the rest of us. Said in your shorthand, they shouldn’t get a say in the matter (“the matter” being whether the intern system should exist).

  • Ben said, “Which the interns still consider an acceptable situation since they actively pursue internships.”

    Agree with good riddance said, “the vast majority of people who can afford internships are those with independent financial support” and “Those who MUST make money to live take real jobs.”

    My comments to both of these quotes is that in my and my dh’s experience from college, if we wanted our degree, we HAD to get an internship, and it HAD to be unpaid (ie, if you got paid, it didn’t count, and you had to start over). My dh had been working in his field for quite some time, yet he still had to have his unpaid internship to qualify for his diploma. Now THAT was a waste of his time. Especially since he still needed to work 2-3 jobs on top of that to make ends meet while still in school full time. In fact, because it was working for an arm of our religious denomination, he counted it more as volunteer hours than “work.”

    And for the record, from my personal experience, I don’t know anyone who got a job at the same place as they interned or as a direct result of their internship, except for my dh – but it took almost a year after graduation to land that highly underpaid job plus cheap contract labor with them before that that barely fed us. Good thing I had a cheap job at a retail store, or we wouldn’t have made it our first year married. My class had a hard time getting a job no matter what their internship experience was, and classes ever since have followed suit. Every job wants 3-5 years of experience, but no internship will ever equal that.

  • And, about that pro bono and community service that work firms, and some universities, expect?

  • A system that is not broken and not in need of fixing. Look, if an individual enters into an agreement and feels they are not getting value, they can fend for themselves and walk away. In the meanwhile as a business consultant, I can promise you there are tens of thousands of young people getting great opportunities that will be snuffed out by well intentioned judges such as this one.

    “You want to pass a new law? First take ten of them off the books.”

  • I’m against government interference, but I also think it’s scummy to have people work for you for free. Unless they’re just observing, the ethical thing to do is to pay them. I do pay anyone who works for me, and I’m a self-employed author and newspaper columnist at a time that isn’t exactly the golden age of earning a living for writers. (It’s especially disgusting when huge, highly profitable corporations have people work for nothing.)

  • So, let me see if I get this straight:
    -Having actual employment experience is a good thing in life
    -Some colleges may require an unpaid internship as a requirement to getting a diploma because of…see above (debatable since paid experience should also count, IMHO)
    -Some people get a solid experience working on Black Swan
    -Mutually beneficial to the company and intern
    +Woo hoo! Great thing for your resume
    +Woo hoo! Some free work for the company
    -Not so fast…turns out that a couple of interns believe that, even though they were brought on to help for free while gaining experience they may need to get a job, they don’t like their deal
    -Turns out that it makes a shite-ton of money …hmmmm
    -We’re all so much better off.

    Look, if you don’t like the deal, quit, don’t take it or whatever. Don’t take the stance that you can renegotiate after it turns out your opportunity was more valuable for the company than you like. So you had to do some menial tasks for the position, so wat? Those would be the tasks if were on the job. Would we be hearing this if the movie was a flop? Dunno, but it certainly seems opportunistic to say the least.

    So glad I’ve got gummint to help decide for me. Do we even need contracts anymore?

  • I am not of the mind that government should be allowed to decide on business between consenting adults but I am of the mind that more businesses should recognize that it is ugly to have people work for you for no compensation. This means only rich kids can get internships.

    I am a middle-class newspaper columnist and author with a part-time editorial assistant. I could have an “intern” — I could put an ad on Craigslist and have them lined up down the block begging to work for me for free. Paying somebody is the right thing to do if you are getting value from their labor. (Because you can have somebody for free doesn’t mean it’s right.)

    And frankly, treating people as if they have value brings value. I not only pay the person who works for me, I mentor her. I shepherded her in entering a contest to be columnist (suggesting that she dump her idea for a column and take a couple of brilliant paragraphs she’d shown me about something unique she does and use them as the basis for a column instead). After she won the contest (to do the column for a year), I then spent hours editing each column she wrote. I continue to try to teach her things she needs to know about writing and the business and am now helping her pull together a book proposal out of her columns. All of this in addition to paying her.

    And it pays off for me, as well. I have a loyal and dedicated employee with integrity in the way she does her work, and she is extremely valuable to me. She sees that I act with integrity toward her and it comes back to me.

    So getting something for nothing isn’t always the great deal it seems to be.

  • This is a thinly-veiled part of the union agenda, the idea that interns must be paid. In reality, most interns have very limited real world skills (especially the liberal arts majors) and the point of internships is to help them gain some. I doubt seriously that interns are a profit center for most organizations. Once again, here goes the Left in its never-ending attack on personal choice.

  • “I’m against government interference, but I also think it’s scummy to have people work for you for free.”

    Most people are against gov’t keeping out of everything except the things that they personally want them to get involved in.

    Internships favor rich kids? While I question the premise, let’s plow ahead and ban all things that help rich kids.

    I don’t think it is disgusting when someone works for free. Usually they do so because they are getting something out of it. Why would anyone else want to devalue that and act like there cannot be mutual respect in such a situation? It seems unbelievably short sighted.

    Amy, I appreciate your speech even if was painfully preachy. Seriously. You are doing right by your employee and right by yourself. It is the best way to keep good people and get the most out of them.

    This case was decided on a legal issue. Is anyone really standing up and saying we should ban internships? I appreciate some of you don’t like them. But does anyone really support a law that does not allow consenting adults to enter into a intern-type situation?

    I come on this blog mostly to argue with people – like Walter – who disagree with me on the extent to which we – and govt – are our brother’s keeper. But you people are forcing me to go be the Libertarian-in-Chief. And that is crazy.

  • Not crazy at all, please cultivate and nurture that new role.

  • I have 20 years in IT, no degree

    A couple years ago, I was taking some classes at a local community college. They brought up the suggestion, that I was very close to an AS in IT, because of my “life experience”.

    They required a 80 hour unpaid internship as part of all their degrees. Because of my non-compete clause with my employer, I couldn’t do the internship.

    They (the college) agreed to let me do it with my employer, paid. Then demanded I write a report about how much I learned from my internship. I honestly wrote a report about how 2 weeks of work at the same job I have been doing for 10 years was unlikely to generate any new unique learning opportunities and this how thing was a meaningless paper exercise. The advisor tried to give me an “F” on my internship. I appealed. The dean overturned it and gave me an “A”. Told the advisor to loosen up and be more ready to give people working in their field more “life experience” credits rather than meaningless internships.

  • I support the professor’s decision to give you an F and I disagree with the college decision to give you a degree in large part based on life experiences.

    Are you better at IT then someone with more formal education? I would not be at all surprised if you were. Twenty years in IT is a powerful statement on a resume. Why duplicate that by giving a degree for it? I already gave you credit for it when I looked at your resume. What exactly would the point be?

    Anyone who writes a paper and says “This is dumb and meaningless” deserves an F in my opinion. You could have just taken the opportunity to write about what you have learned over the last 20 years and how it compares to what you have learned in school. There are a million positive things you could have done with it. Instead you made the obnoxious point that you should get educational credit because you have life experience without putting you out any further. Did you go to the professor first and say, “Hey, how should I write this given my situation?” If you had tried to be reasonable, you would not have had to go running to the dean in the first place.

  • To “Agree w/ Good Riddance”. You commented – “I’m not an expert in Employment History, but how did inexperienced people get jobs before rampant internships? Whatever that was, let’s return to that.”

    A brief answer. They were slaves. or Serfs. or Peasants. Pick whatever term you prefer. There are plenty of 3rd world countries you could pick, should you be interested in personally returning to such a system.

    Internships are little different from the classic apprenticeship under the Guild system. I’m sure you are familiar with the Guild system, it was such a great way of organizing labor that Antitrust is said (in large part) to have grown as a response to it. Guilds are also compared to Cartels, a word which carries many negative connotations. Structurally, they share many similarities.

    In any event, the last of the Guilds here in America are perhaps best represented by State Bar Associations. You think not? Try practicing law without a license. I understand some in that cartel are advocating a return to unpaid internships due to the failures of our numerous law schools to produce students capable of actually practicing competently in the field.

    But perhaps I misunderstood your yearning for the past?