Internships are awesome. They look great on a résumé and they help you hone your craft with real-world experience. As a journalism student, I’ve heard the same advice many times: “Do as many internships as you can.” So I have done internships, both paid and unpaid, for the sake of gaining some experience while I’m still in school.
Within my school and other universities across the nation, it seems like full-time, unpaid internships are a common practice. For many, these unpaid internships are taken at the cost of relocating away from school (e.g. taking a summer internship in NYC) and/or paying for extra school credit. See, that’s a loophole, folks. As long as it is labeled as ‘educational’, an employer does not have to pay its intern. In reality, paying interns is not about thriving, really; it’s about surviving. Many times, a student is not even reimbursed for housing, food, or transportation.
But there’s a group going against the current, telling students to resist unpaid work. #PayGenY, an initiative sponsored by She Negotiates Consulting and Training, argues that most unpaid internships are illegal.
“We have a very simple lesson: influence for-profit employers, university and professional schools to pay interns,” Victoria Pynchon, co-founder of She Negotiates, said.
The group is starting locally by asking universities in California to stop posting internship announcements for for-profit businesses and even some non-profits, if they don’t provide a living wage to students.
Today’s unpaid interns are working jobs that would have paid others at entry level. Sometimes their work, Pynchon noted, is “mostly clerical.” By replacing these often routine but necessary jobs with unpaid interns, companies are eliminating an entire workforce. Not to mention, using interns for clerical work in this way often violates the Fair Labor Standards Act.
As per usual, women and low-income students get the short end of the stick: “Women are trying to pay off their debts 20-30% longer and they’re getting paid less than their male counterparts,” Pynchon added.
And those students whose parents earn less than the rest of their peers? Many of them cannot afford to pay for extra school credits, let alone work for free. Thus, there is a cycle perpetuated by these corporations, which limits students who come from difficult financial circumstances. Some companies offering unpaid internships acknowledge the gap between low-income and high-income interns (like opportunities for interns in the New Corporation Diversity Program, which I was a part of), which is a step in #PayGenY’s direction.
However, there’s still something off about the bigger picture and many former interns are catching on. Recent lawsuits against Hearst, Harper’s Bazaar, and Fox Searchlight suggest that perhaps for-profit employers may be exploiting the rights of these students, who often work what could be considered a full-time job for free—while still attending to school.
The struggles of unpaid interns have even hit the mainstream. Take, for example, the discussion sparked by the HBO show Girls. At the start of season one, my fictitious kindred spirit, Hannah, attempts to negotiate a paid job from her unpaid internship at a publisher, where she has worked for two years. She is promptly fired.
“It’s a question of consciousness-raising…[for these] widespread scoff laws,” Pynchon said.
It was not until Victoria Pynchon paid a visit to Chelsea Akin’s class that Akin first heard someone say that students should not take unpaid internships.
Akin, who works with #PayGenY, chimed in over the phone: “I thought unpaid internships were the norm.”
The movement is not just supported by Generation Y. Pynchon is a veteran lawyer who has spearheaded #PayGenY’s plan. “My education cost me next to nothing. [Yet even then] I couldn’t take free work…no one has ever told [Generation Y] not to work for free,” Pynchon concluded. “We are not being responsible to the upcoming generation.”