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Thursday, July 09, 2015

Unpaid Interns

The concept of "college intern" has always bothered me. At its most basic level, it's supposed to give a student an opportunity to get a foot inside a company to learn what it's like to work there. The problem is that most interns are not paid, which means they're not employees, they're volunteers. On top of that, the students (or their parents) have to pay for the privilege of working for free if they're going to get college credit. So the university is getting money without providing a service, and the company is getting free labor.

This sticks in my craw because I have a daughter in college, and she has done internships for several non-profits. She didn't receive credit for them, however, so I've explained that she wasn't really an intern, she was a volunteer. That's not the same as having a job. I don't have a problem with volunteerism in the non-profit sector. For four decades, my mother-in-law has run a wonderful service that records books for the blind, and everyone on her staff is a volunteer. But they are all adults, and they don't consider it an internship.

However, in the for-profit world, to quote Kevin O'Leary from "Shark Tank," it's all about the money. You wouldn't keep going to your job if you weren't getting a paycheck each week. That's how it works -- put in the hours doing what you're told, and you get paid. I've heard the argument that the interns are receiving valuable experience, and that's their reward. Sure. Try paying your rent with experience and see what the landlord says.

These employers use interns instead of paid employees because they can get away with it, and they're almost all in the white-collar world. I've never heard of a gas station that had interns hanging around learning how to do an oil lube or change a tire in exchange for college credit and "experience." There are no college interns working on a road crew filling potholes. In the construction trade, they have apprenticeships, but those are entry-level jobs where you're paid to learn. There are no volunteer carpenters and plumbers.

Most of the radio stations I've worked for have used college interns -- and "used" is the correct verb, because their "work" consisted mostly of making copies, running errands, giving out t-shirts and cheap prizes at promotional events, answering phones, etc. None of these were real career opportunities, yet these students devoted several hours multiple times a week to "learn" radio from the inside. Sure, they were exposed to the hosts and other personnel, and may have gleaned some insight simply by osmosis, but the benefits were outweighed by the grunt work they were forced to do.

Two years ago, a couple of college interns who worked on the production of the movie "Black Swan" sued Fox Searchlight, saying they weren't getting any academic benefit. Instead, they were tasked with the sort of unimportant work usually assigned to someone's assistant (including buying a non-allergenic pillow for director Darren Aronofsky). In a decision that sent shivers through every company that uses interns, a federal trial judge agreed that those interns were essentially the same as regular employees, and thus should have been paid for their time and work.

Fox Searchlight appealed, and last week, a federal appeals court reversed the decision. So I invited Slate's senior business correspondent Jordan Weissmann back to my show to explain why the judges ruled that way, the impact the decision will have on other interns, and how the court's rules for interns differ from those of the US Department of Labor.

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Previously on Harris Online...