An Intern of Value
Guest post by Carolyn G. Osorio, USA Today Column Contributor
I have had nine internships in a variety of industries; I have been a museum intern, a performing arts center intern, a magazine intern, interned for multiple fashion-designers, interned for public relations firms and been a media intern for a manufacturing company. All but one of these was unpaid. During my time as an unpaid intern I was routinely verbally abused and discounted. When asked to run errands or travel to outside locations, I had to pay all my own transportation fees including additional cab fare and metro card fees. I was physically shoved by a well-known fashion designer at New York Fashion Week because she did not “want an intern in the shot” while filming a press interview. I was told I could not use a building’s restroom because I was not a “real employee” and would have to ride the elevator to the basement to use the restroom reserved for those less privileged. I huddled in a closet with three fellow interns at an employee birthday party, told we had to wait to come out until all the regular employees had left the room. Apparently seeing an intern eat a cookie would be upsetting for regular paid employees. Finally, in an experience I now affectionately refer to as the ‘Rosa Parks’ incident, I was kicked out of a lunchroom for not sitting at the ‘intern table’ and presuming I could sit at any table in the room, you know, like a real employee would. Virtually none of my unpaid internship environments were positive, rarely did anyone learn my name, and even less frequently was I treated like an actual human being. I had no dignity and no value, and for a young girl just entering her twenties it was absolutely soul crushing. Organization’s unpaid intern programs have morphed into a cesspool of abuse, where even learning an intern’s name has become out of fashion. I could write an entire book on the negative experiences I’ve had as an unpaid intern but instead I hope to share with you just how important it is to work in a fair and paid environment.
Abuse has become the standard for today’s unpaid internships and the lack of pay for young people equates directly with the lack of respect they receive. Most students who take on an internship are trying to get ahead; they are taking on more work in an effort to prove their value to an employer down the road. Often students, eager to be helpful, are handed work that would normally be done by a regular paid employee from an organization looking to save money. The naïve intern accepts the increasing levels of responsibility, without pay. While this is a clear violation of the FSLA guidelines, unpaid interns function as a cash-cow allowing free labor to offset a company’s other expenses while praying on young people who have been repeatedly told they ‘need the experience’. To complain about the work assigned is a sure way to be replaced by someone else willing to accept the abuse. The ‘unpaid internship’ offers companies a chance to get ahead BUT does little for the actual intern as there is often no guarantee of a paid position down the road, no feeling of being valued by the employer, and often no actual transferable training.
Of course, securing an internship is the first step. Unfortunately, in today’s shifting economy, where a college degree is ubiquitous and entry-level jobs require multiple internships, getting a leg-up is once again about who you know and not what you can do. Most people are familiar with the concept of the glass ceiling – women and minorities being blocked from high-level positions purely on the basis of gender or race. However, few are familiar with the idea of a glass-floor. The glass floor is the concept that wealthy people have the economic and social clout to keep their children in the wealthy circle at the exclusion or expense of others. This oftentimes leads to less qualified candidates being offered jobs or, for the sake of this article, internship positions over more qualified but less financially supported candidates. This glass-floor has major implications for millennials as it can directly impact social mobility and this coupled with the increasingly burdensome internship expectations set forth by companies has set up a system of abuse for the underprivileged.
As a college student I took 18 units a semester and always had internships, often two, simultaneously. My school schedule, and my need to pay for the roof over my head, made it impossible to give the forty hours (or more) a week many companies demand from their unpaid interns. Oftentimes the only way to get noticed for your work at these organizations is your constant presence and this ability belongs only to those in our generation with a wealthy or connected family; a family that will pay the rent and living expenses while one toils away without a wage. I come from a middle-class, single-parent home and my mother, like so many others, took out massive loans to help me earn a college education, and as a result there was simply no money for me to extend my time in college or pay for a mid-town apartment that would cut my commute time. I worked incredibly hard, graduated magna cum laude from a prestigious New York school, and even after graduation I continued with internships while working as a server and barista to pay my rent; all in the hopes of landing an entry-level career job. In spite of several interviews, I was never offered a paid position with a single organization I had been a ‘free’ intern with and other employers discounted my internships as ‘worthless’ as I had not been paid. In fact, at the nine different companies for whom I interned over a period of four years, I am aware of only one fellow intern who was actually hired. The position she was hired for had incredibly low pay, and her apartment was continuing to be subsidized by her parents, long after graduation.
Not only do many unpaid internships not offer educational skills or lessons but oftentimes they are actually a detriment to the educational process by hindering a student’s ability to study and focus on their coursework. Many of my fellow interns would take semesters off in order to devote the kind of full time hours organizations were demanding. When supposedly educational experiences are actually stopping real education, how can companies still justify their unpaid work? There is a precarious balance in internships in that the employer is at no obligation to hire you at the end of the internship but the employer is also not supposed to gain any advantage from an intern’s work. The U.S. Department of Labor has six criteria that are necessary for determining if an internship is legally able to not pay you wages and employers focus primarily on the second criteria which states, “The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern” and therein lies the problem with almost every unpaid internship I have seen. All experience, however abusive and unpaid, is a beneficial learning experience, right? This ‘learning experience’ often trumps two other federal criteria: “The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff” and “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.” Employers pick and choose which regulations to follow and how to interpret the wording to their own benefit. All I can say is heaven help the poor intern that actually impedes operations. She will not be allowed to continue her ‘free’ job.
Most recently I wrote an Op-Ed that was published by USA Today where I talked about my most recent experience with being asked to work for free, this time by the next possible President of the United States. Between the article and my appearance on Fox & Friends to further discuss these issues I was amazed to see the reaction I got from people of all ages. Young people telling me their own unpaid experiences, baby-boomers accusing me of whining, and a special email from America’s Future Workforce asking me to write this piece for them. What I learned most from the experience was that I am not alone in my inability to be financially supported while working for free. It’s easy to feel like you are all alone in this world especially if you see others being supported in ways you cannot. For me, it was increasingly difficult in New York City being surrounded by other people my age that could afford to do the things I could not and live in the neighborhoods I only dreamed of and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t hurt. I’ve never had a lot of money but America is supposed to be the country where social mobility, more than any other country, is fluid. As the child of an immigrant, I believe in the American Dream. We are a country of entrepreneurs and self-made men (and women). To see the current abusive system of internships and the exclusionary nature of the job market is a difficult thing to swallow.
Of my many internship experiences, I point to my one paid internship as the shining example of what an internship should be. It seems fortuitous that my most positive and educational experience also happened to be my only paid one. I learned about everything from styling to editorial requests to showroom details. I worked with a fashion manufacturer who valued my time and my work and even learned my name. My boss had been an intern herself before being offered the position she had with the company. I don’t know if it was the paycheck that made them respect me or if they paid me because they respected me but they were an amazing company and I cherished my time with them. I had value as a worker and as a human being and that is what I hope everyone will have when they intern.
The fact that only one of my internship experiences was positive (and it was paid) is a clear sign of the current problem with internships. Lack of regulation and lack of pay lead to abuse and the whittling down of our young people’s self-worth. To be told so early in your life that you are worth nothing is not a precedent we should be setting or allowing. I spoke out in USA Today hoping that Hilary Clinton would hear my words, and now I speak out hoping you, other interns, will hear me. This system needs to be changed and it can only happen with us.
-Carolyn G. Osorio