Interns Who Make Headlines—Not Coffee

Baltimore-area student interns talk about their experiences this summer at various companies. Credit: Sonia Su.
Baltimore-area student interns talk about their experiences this summer at various companies. Credit: Sonia Su.

By Sonia Su

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Interns have made news before. But this year, they’re not only sparking controversy, they’re starting a national debate.

It was an intern who was blamed for confirming the fake and racially insensitive names of the pilots on Asiana Airlines Flight 214. It was a 16-year-old “reporter” who caused a stir when he “massively trolled the White House” asking about threats against George Zimmerman’s family. And, groups of interns are winning lawsuits over not being paid.

As a summer of traditionally free labor comes to an end, interns, it seems, are demanding more attention.

Previously often relegated to fetching coffee and running errands, interns are now demanding respect through campaigns, petitions and even lawsuits, pointing out that in a strained economy they are now doing much of the same work as their paid counterparts, with some 50 percent of their interns getting nothing in return for their labor.

A federal judge in Manhattan ruled on June 11 that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated U.S. and New York minimum wage laws for “Black Swan” interns, and similar lawsuits have followed against other employers, according to Reuters.

“I think organizations need to be careful,” said Christine Routzahn, director of the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s internship program. “An organization that is using an intern for a position that they normally pay for or [impacts] their bottom line and they’re a for-profit organization … should really look at that case law and say, ‘Can I be next?’ ”

Eric Glatt, the former “Black Swan” intern who successfully sued Fox Searchlight Pictures, is now part of a group called Intern Labor Rights and works as a paid legal research assistant.

Glatt said on July 23 on the Baltimore-based radio show Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR that he thought the unpaid aspect of internships was “arbitrary but standard practice.”

“I certainly found the practice offensive,” Glatt said on the show, “but also it was very clear to me that it was normal, that this was standard practice to get your foot in the door in this industry—your first jobs would be unpaid internships until you had enough experience on your resume that someone would deign to say, ‘Oh, now your labor is worth paying for.’ ”

But when The New York Times published a story on the Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act, Glatt realized that unpaid internships were in fact a “black-and-white issue,” he said.

“It was instantly clear to me that all these unpaid internships throughout the film production industry and now … many industries as well, are in strict violation of the law,” Glatt told Rodricks.

Attorney Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, said on the show that the criteria for what constitutes an unpaid internship are laid out “very clearly.”

“There’s a provision that says that the employer will not get an immediate advantage from having the intern there,” Eisenbrey said. “It should be something where the employer is providing training that actually is more expensive to the employer, … not a situation where the employer is simply saving costs from having a free worker.”

Despite the department’s definitions, Glenda Henkel, associate director and internship program coordinator at Towson University’s Career Center, said that the relationship between the student’s unpaid role and the employer is complicated.

“That [provision] is a tricky one because one of the advantages to the internship relationship is that the student should be able to have some work that will maybe be a portfolio item—something that the student can demonstrate as professional work, a project completed—and also something that the employer can access,” Henkel said.

Even though Glatt succeeded in his lawsuit, not all work of interns in the news has been positive.

A listener on the radio show told Rodricks that he wouldn’t be surprised if the entertainment industry has blacklisted Glatt, who responded saying he knew the implications when making the decision to file his suit. On a different career path, Glatt now studies law at Georgetown.

Moreover, the National Transportation Safety Board fired its intern, who made headlines in July when it was discovered that the intern was the “official” who confirmed inaccurate and offensive names of the flight crew for the San Francisco Bay-area television station that broadcast them.

“It’s unfortunate because he’s a very intelligent young man who made a very big mistake,” an NTSB spokesman told Politico.

It was in 1998 that perhaps the most famous intern-related scandal occurred, involving a personal relationship between Monica Lewinsky and then-President Clinton, resulting in a congressional impeachment vote against Clinton that ultimately failed. Clinton remained in office until the end of his term.

This year, Fordham University junior Olivia Nuzzi rose to fame, landing a front-page story on the New York Daily News on how she and other interns for Anthony Weiner’s New York mayoral campaign signed on with the campaign with the sole goal of making a connection with potential 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, a close friend of Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin. In a fiery response, Weiner’s press secretary made her own headlines, cursing at the intern, saying, “She sucked. … She was clearly there because she wanted to be seen.”

If they aren’t being seen, Nuzzi and interns everywhere are apparently being heard.

Mikey Franklin hopes to give a voice to unpaid interns. He co-founded the Fair Pay Campaign, the first national movement working to end unpaid internships from all employers, including the White House.

“Hundreds of thousands of young people are being told that in order to get ahead, they have to work for free. Hundreds of thousands more are having their dreams denied because they can’t afford to work for free. The tension’s mounting and people really have had enough,” Franklin told Rodricks.

Campaign for America’s Future is also petitioning the White House to pay its interns. As of publication, more than 8,400 people have signed the petition.

Even colleges, including University of Maryland’s Bright Futures internship scholarship fund, have programs to help fund unpaid interns.

“You’re talking about students working maybe 100 to 150 hours at most, and spread that over a three-month period of time, it’s not a lot of money and certainly a lot less money than a lawsuit would cost,” Henkel said. Towson, where Henkel works, does not have an internship fund but does a biannual suit drive in the fall semester to help students who need workplace clothing.

Multibillion-dollar industries, in particular—including radio, television and film—have a ” ‘cool’ factor that sort of clouds people’s understanding of the fact that this is labor providing value to the employers who are making nice, comfortable, hefty profits off of it,” Glatt told Rodricks.

But now, it’s not enough to be able to work alongside celebrities.

“People really have to wake up to the fact that labor is labor,” Glatt said, “and it needs to be paid if it’s going to help support middle-class jobs that produce more consumer demand as people spend that in the economy.”

TELL US: What are your paid and unpaid internship experiences?

Related Reading

Interested in reading more on unpaid interns and how interns, in general, are saturating media lately? Read some more articles from around the web.

About this series: 
As part of our jobs reporting, Patch is profiling people who have internships throughout Maryland, focusing on the issue of paid and unpaid positions. What do you think about paid and unpaid internships? Let us know in the comments below.

Editor’s Note: This story was written by a paid intern at Patch.