Los Angeles Business Journal

When Internships Don’t Work

Companies push boundaries of ethical and legal behavior with unpaid use of young employees. By Susan M. Tellem Monday, May 6, 2013

Recently, we were in a discussion with one of our freelancers about unpaid internships – she and 40 of her colleagues at the time did not receive pay interning at a large music label. I asked another freelancer if he had done an internship for free and the answer was affirmative. This is common practice in many industries, but does that make it OK?

New York Times Magazine, in an article titled “Hello Cruel World” about the job market, referenced data from December 2011 that said 74 percent of internships are unpaid. This is shocking. An unemployed woman volunteered that she was offered an unpaid internship by a law firm and turned it down saying that if a company can’t afford to pay interns $10 an hour, it shouldn’t be in business.

Remember when Charlie Rose got in trouble for using unpaid interns? His interns did research to prepare Rose for interviews, escorted guests and cleaned up the show’s green room. Cleaning? That sounds like a perfect learning experience. Unfortunately, many interns end up doing chores like cleaning and making coffee. 

A run through job ads in virtually every town on Craigslist offers internships with no pay but “great experience!!!” Most interns are still in college or recent grads. Many hold down part-time, low-paying jobs as waiters, baristas, cashiers, etc. The internship is a needed financial adjunct while they are in school. I remember my minimum-wage days as a waitress, as well as the hell-on-Earth job of selling magazine subscriptions by phone. Today, when college expenses are skyrocketing, doing an unpaid internship on top of a minimum-wage job seems just plain mean.

A quick look at Craigslist ads in Los Angeles shows that the most common unpaid ads are posted by entertainment, PR and marketing firms, and the fashion world. According to an internship ad for a large fashion house that made no mention of pay but did require a bachelor’s degree, interns get to do “showroom maintenance.” Please bring your own broom and Formula 409, ladies and gents.

Here are a few more recent L.A.-based unpaid internship ads:

• PR shop – Must currently be enrolled in a university or college program and studying communications or PR. 3-4 days per week, 3 month commitment.

• Health product – Graphic design with Photoshop and Illustrator, blog writing & linking, shipping & returns, research, general office work, light data entry, marketing, PR, and occasionally accompanying the owner to meetings with client or on shopping trips. Compensation is the product (to lose 10 pounds).

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