Unpaid internships: Denying opportunities and exploiting young workers

Laura Rowley has an excellent response to the silly op-ed by Steve Cohen published in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. Cohen wrote that paying interns to deliver clothing for photo shoots, run copy machines, or clean the green room at a TV studio is dumb. The young people doing those jobs are not employees, according to Cohen; they’re simply auditioning.

Cohen admits that the grunt work he and his son did in separate internships at a law firm and a magazine was “boring, mindless, repetitious” and yet, “essential to the workings of our offices.” Nevertheless, Cohen says the chance to prove himself a good employee was so valuable to him, as was the exposure to a law office’s operations, that his employer shouldn’t have had to pay him even minimum wage.

Rowley accepts Cohen’s conclusion that his internship was valuable but says the experience shouldn’t be limited to people like Cohen (a former media executive) and his son, who can afford to work for free. What about the kids graduating from college with $50,000 of debt, or the children of factory workers or waitresses who can’t support their grown children in New York City? Should they be denied the audition, the exposure to interesting work environments, the chance to prove themselves? 

My own response is more fundamental. Cohen admits that the work he and his son did was essential to the for-profit businesses that employed them. If the Cohens hadn’t worked for free, someone else (in an economy with terribly high unemployment) would have had the opportunity for a paying job, and the competitors of those firms would not have been at a disadvantage because of the illegal labor cost savings and payroll tax savings the Cohens’ free labor enabled.

Addressing the possibility that unpaid “interns are really doing the jobs of displaced low-wage workers,” Cohen admits that in the case of the recently settled Charlie Rose lawsuit, “Unskilled workers could clean up a TV-studio green room or escort guests to the elevator or assemble press packets.” What he doesn’t mention is that half the jobs in New York that New Yorkers are paid to do are unskilled, and the unemployment rate in New York City has exceeded 8 percent for the last five years.

Cohen goes on and on about how much he learned by copying litigation documents on the office copy machine. I did that job before I went to law school 35 years ago, and I learned a lot, too; but I was paid for the work, as were the other clerks. It was an audition for later employment, but first and foremost it was a job, and the law firm followed the Fair Labor Standards Act and paid us for our work.

It might be true, as Cohen predicts, that enforcing the law will mean that companies “will now be less likely to bring on interns.” Good! They will have to bring on employees and pay them to do the essential work that interns have been doing, unpaid. Everyone but the partner at the top, who will have to shell out $7.25 an hour and some employment taxes, will be better off.