A debate over unpaid internships at for-profit companies is currently roiling national media. Whats puzzling is not that there is a debate, but rather that anyone tries to defend the idea of free work.
By TED ILIFF
Special to The Star
Michael Moroney of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, for example, eloquently listed the benefits of internships in a recent CNN.com commentary. Recalling his own experience from internships paid and unpaid, he noted how interns gain valuable experience while auditioning for prospective employers. He derided the current outbreak of lawsuits by former unpaid interns.
The inherent frivolity of these lawsuits is that these interns willingly chose to take an unpaid position to further their careers, he wrote.
Theres where his argument derails. True, federal law based on a 1947 Supreme Court decision allows unpaid internships at for-profit businesses, but only under six conditions dealing with the activities and benefits of the work experience.
Writing in 1947, Associate Justice Hugo Black said, We have not ignored the argument that (this decision) may open up a way for evasion of the law.
That law is indeed evaded every time an unpaid intern is asked to make coffee, clean the office, run a personal errand for the boss, or endure other menial tasks.
As for interns willingly accepting unpaid positions, you should hear the angst my UMKC students express about their employment prospects. Their willingness to work as an unpaid intern matches the willingness of a desperately poor person to buy a lottery ticket.
Writing in the New York Times, Ross Perlin added the issue of social and economic class to the equation. Unpaid interns for the most part can afford to work for free because they have other means of support family, spouse, other job, etc.
Those who cant afford to work without pay are eager for the chance to break into the intern-heavy fields that are now all but closed to them, Perlin wrote.
Furthermore, in a high unemployment economy, unpaid interns and their managers face accusations that they illegally, in the laws words, displace regular employees.
Even internships for academic credit suffer. Graduates are often more attractive to hiring managers than students. Academic credit internships also have oversight requirements that an employer may find burdensome or unwelcome.
Internships are without a doubt an integral component of the employment market and can launch a lifetime of professional success. My two paid summer internships (one at The Kansas City Star) were the cornerstones of my career. To further the cause, Im helping to create a UMKC internship program at the National World War I Museum.
Unpaid internships, however, prey on desperate job seekers and offer seductive temptation to penny-pinching managers looking for an easy way to get work for free.
A federal judge in New York has already ruled one unpaid internship program illegal. (Ominously, the judge also gave a thumbs-down to internships for academic credit.) The journalism site ProPublica counts 14 similar cases in progress.
Any for-profit enterprise using unpaid interns would be wise to think again. If conscience alone is not enough motivation, the courts may soon make the decision for them.
Ted Iliff of Overland Park, formerly CNNs executive editor, now teaches media writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.