Just Saying No: Interns Challenge Employers Over Exploitation

Carolyn Osorio
Provided by Guardian News

Four years after moving to New York City, Carolyn Osorio had finally had enough.

After three stints as an unpaid public affairs intern and another three as an unpaid fashion design intern, the 24-year-old moved back home to California in the hope of finding a paid full-time job, something she had been unable to land since graduating from university in 2013 with a degree in art and design.

“I was frustrated. I’d been out of college for two years and still hadn’t been able to find a full-time job in my field,” she said.

Shortly after arriving back in San Diego last summer, Osorio thought she had finally found paid work as a fellow with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. That is until she received the acceptance letter for the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, which included no mention of pay.

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Unpaid work is common in campaigns, and as secretary of state, Hillary worked for the Obama administration. At the same time the administration was cracking down on unpaid internships in the private sector, it continued not paying the 300 annual interns in the White House,” Osorio wrote in an op-ed for USA Today calling on Clinton to pay her interns.

Osorio is one of more than a million Americans who end up in one of the 1.5 million internships available in the U.S. each year, according to Ross Perlin, author of the 2011 book Intern Nation. About half of those internships are unpaid, which is legal in the U.S. as long as the positions meet Department of Labor requirements: unpaid internships “must benefit” the interns by providing them with new skills and experience.

According to Osorio, Clinton’s campaign justified the lack of payment by telling prospective fellows they would be earning experience. Osorio, who already had experience from her other unpaid internships, felt helpless and disillusioned.

“I have considerable student debt which, due in large part to the current job market, I have been unable to pay down,” Osorio said. “I subscribed to the hope that working as an intern while an undergraduate student would significantly improve my chances of attaining full-time employment after I graduated, but instead the experiences were simply discounted as ‘not real work’ because I was unpaid.”

Continuing to take unpaid internships after college while trying to pay rent and student loans was no longer financially feasible, Osorio said.

“The Clinton fellowship would have incurred even more debt because the campaign wanted me to pay for my housing, my transportation, my meals and the actual cost of moving states entirely on my own,” she said. “Telling my loan provider I’ll be getting paid in ‘experience’ isn’t going to stop the ever-increasing interest on my student loans and it isn’t going to put a roof over my head.”

Many internships require interns to pay their own way, which puts poor millennials at a disadvantage.

Minorities are less likely to get the most valuable unpaid internships because they often cannot afford to take them, especially if they are away from their home town, according to Ross Eisenbrey, vice-president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

“How can a poor kid afford to pay rent in New York City or Washington, D.C., when she’s not getting paid for her full-time job? Her family isn’t in a position to subsidise her when they’re already borrowing for college,” he said.

A 2015 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found the primary purpose of an internship scheme at about 70% of employers was to turn interns into full-time employees. Yet only 52% of interns were hired after their internships last year.

“Unpaid internships can be beneficial but on the whole, they are much less advantageous than paid internships, and there is evidence that they can actually do harm to the students who do them,” said Eisenbrey. He added that data from NACE found that paid internships lead to salary offers substantially higher than those offered to students who had unpaid internships, in addition to a much higher rate of job offers.

Alex Caprariello is one of the 48% of people who finished an internship without a job offer. Caprariello, 25, is a graduate student at Arizona State University, studying sports journalism. He knew that his recent internship with the Arizona Sports and Entertainment Commission would be unpaid but did it anyway for the experience.

“Obviously, I would have liked being paid, but in terms of what I want to do, internships are definitely the way to go,” he said.

Before deciding to pursue a career in sports journalism, Caprariello studied business as an undergraduate. During that time, he held other paid and unpaid internships, none of which he regrets.

“I’ve gotten pretty good experiences out of all of them. I usually leave with a good letter of recommendation or a good reference. It’s part of my networking right now. I get to meet a lot of people and the more people get to see how I conduct myself and my work ethic and my motivation, the better,” he said.

But not everyone believes “experience” or connections are enough of a payout for weeks and months of labor. Over the past five years, former interns at Condé Nast, Harper’s Bazaar, Gawker Media, NBC Universal and Fox Searchlight have filed lawsuits against their employers, accusing them of exploitation.

Eric Glatt
Provided by Guardian News

Eric Glatt, who worked as an unpaid intern on the Oscar-winning film Black Swan, led the charge against Fox Searchlight. But Glatt was not a young college graduate who felt he had no option but to take an unpaid internship. At the time, he was a successful 40-year-old who quit a career in finance to become a documentary film-maker.

After completing a film-editing certification course, Glatt was shocked to hear his instructor recommend that students take unpaid internships to build up their resumes and gain experience.

“This idea that employers would expect to get something for free had never even crossed my mind before, not even as an undergraduate student and not when I was in business school,” he said. Glatt said he knew that the Black Swan internship was unpaid from the start, but the more he thought about it, the angrier he got, so he filed a lawsuit in September 2011.

Though the suit is ongoing, Glatt said of his decision to sue Fox Searchlight: “It has been great and empowering to finally call bull**** on bull****.” It also led him to a new career as a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union in Alaska.

As for Osorio, she does not regret writing her op-ed. Weeks after it ran in July 2015, Clinton’s campaign announced it was going to pay the full-time fellows it had hired for the summer.

Written by Jana Kasperkevic of The Guardian

(Source: The Guardian)


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