After graduating from school I despaired of finding a job and applied instead for unpaid internships, landing at The Paris Review, a literary magazine in Manhattan. I read through the slush pile, learned how to fact-check and performed light janitorial tasks, like emptying the dishwasher and taking out the trash. It was a fine four months. My parents lived in the city, so I didn’t have to pay rent; the editors were kind, smart people who seemed appropriately embarrassed by the trash situation.
Such experiences are common. Ross Perlin, the author of “Intern Nation,” estimated in 2011 that between one and two million people participate in internships each year in the United States, and that as many as half of internships are unpaid or paid below the minimum wage.
Employers see nothing wrong with soliciting free labor on public forums. This month, a high-level editor at Lean In, the foundation Sheryl Sandberg started to help women “pursue their ambitions,” tried using Facebook to find a “part-time, unpaid” intern “with editorial and social chops” as well as “Web skills.” After an uproar — how could Lean In, of all places, lean on interns? — the foundation president promised to set up a more formal internship program, with compensation.
Unpaid internships are, at best, ethically iffy. A necessary precursor to jobs in certain fields, they act as both a gateway and a barrier to entry. Young people believe they have no choice. Anyone unable to forgo pay risks being shut out.
* * *
In the absence of aggressive government oversight, pushback has come through the legal system. A Federal District Court judge in Manhattan ruled in June that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage laws by not paying production interns. The plaintiffs, who worked on the film “Black Swan,” said they did basic chores like answering phones and, yes, taking out the trash — which should have been done by actual employees. Unpaid interns have filed at least three lawsuits since that victory, against Condé Nast, the Warner Music Group and Gawker Media.
The threat of lawsuits may, over time, dissuade companies from misclassifying employees. But proper enforcement of labor law shouldn’t depend on exploited interns’ willingness to suffer through courtroom ordeals.