Internships, often unpaid, have become a prevalent rite of passage for youth entering the workforce. The rise of internships, especially as part of higher education, is notable: according to estimates, 63% of students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2013 reported having completed an internship, up from only 17% in 1992.
Both The Daily Beast, a media outlet, and ProPublica, an investigative journalism organization, called 2013 “the year of the [unpaid] intern.” Although 2013 was a landmark year for those who support intern labor rights, commentators might soon call 2014 the year of the intern. The rapidly changing landscape of the intern economy, especially the recent challenge of unpaid internships, has been propelled by two interrelated (and persistent) developments: intern lawsuits and labor rights activism.
As I argued in a recent article in the sociological journal Work and Occupations, to be an intern is a challenging, highly ambiguous role. Unpaid interns can be seen as a source of cheap labor, an opportunity for valuable training, or both. The ambiguous legal status of interns (as both students and workers) has helped bring this problematic issue to the forefront.
An increasing number of former unpaid interns have been suing companies for back pay (and damages). According to ProPublica, two such lawsuits were filed in 2011, seven in 2012, and at least 23 in 2013. A lawsuit against the television show Charlie Rose resulted in a settlement for over 180 interns ($110,000 in total). Elite Model Management recently agreed to pay $450,000 to a group of unpaid interns to settle an unpaid wages claim – the settlement is the largest unpaid intern award to date. In June 2013, Federal Judge William Pauley handed two unpaid interns a summary judgment win against Fox Searchlight Pictures. The judge not only agreed the plaintiffs (who worked on the film Black Swan) should be considered employees, but also certified a class action suit on behalf of an entire class of employees (i.e., unpaid interns) at the parent company, Fox Entertainment Group.
Companies, interns, and even the courts appear to be increasingly unclear about how to define and justify a legal unpaid internship.
The rise of intern lawsuits has paralleled and propelled public debate about unpaid internships. The release of journalist Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation in 2011 helped put the intern economy on the media’s radar and launch a wave of labor rights activism. Recent examples of such activism include the following:
- A Tumblr account keeps track of which media companies pay interns (http://whopaysinterns.tumblr.com/);
- a New York University student circulated a petition to end unpaid internship listings on campus (which led to incremental changes in February 2014);
- the Intern Labor Rights group, an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, handed out Intern Swag Bags (“Pay Your Interns” tote bags) during winter 2013 Fashion Week;
- in London, protesters dressed like Santa and held banners that read “All we want for Xmas is pay” in front of an art gallery that hosts unpaid interns.
These and several other efforts have helped strengthen a sense of public outrage about unpaid internships. When fashion company Alexander McQueen posted an ad for an 11-month unpaid internship, Twitter, Facebook, and eventually the mass media were alive with outrage. Similarly, Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook C.O.O. and author of a bestselling book on women in the workplace) was publicly shamed after her foundation’s Editor-at-Large posted online in search of an unpaid editorial intern.
2013 was a year of key turning points for intern labor rights, but the momentum does not appear to be fading. The 2nd Circuit Court is currently considering appeal arguments on the Black Swan case; more than a dozen other intern lawsuits are currently in progress; and the intern labor rights movement continues to bring critical attention to this issue (e.g., organizing a May Day workshop). Intern lawsuits and activism are rapidly prompting employers to pay interns, but more broadly these developments are animating public debate about the informality and challenges of unpaid internships.