Friday, November 18, 2011

Ross Perlin: Intern Nation

Sometimes a thing is so ingrained, so taken for granted, so normalized that the thought of challenging it is almost embarrassing.  Internships, at least for Generation Xers and forward, are one of those things.  In order to get a "good job," a person of a certain background goes goes to the best school she can, and while studying, either during the school year, or most definitely during the summer, does at least one unpaid internship. This is not considered demeaning or ridiculous, even though from the outside, the thought of someone working for free is counter-intuitive and perhaps even illegal.  It's just "what you do."  After college, this person of a certain background hopes to find a job of a certain status, and all of these types of jobs require "work experience," and internships are seen as the way to have "work experience" on a resume, regardless of the type of work, the quality of work, or the the payment received.  But this is the status quo, and to challenge it seems ludicrous: pay me? For an internship? Where I am learning? And getting free resume padding? Possibly at a nonprofit where they can't afford to hire me?

Ross Perlin's "Intern Nation" is a counterattack to these prevailing and dangerous ideas.  He challenges interns to stand up for themselves, governments to enforce existing laws, businesses to do right by their flexible employees, unions to pay attention to all employees, universities to correct the institution of internships that they have started, and on and on.  It's a mess. Little known fact: The underpaid or unpaid internship (or internships) you did before, during and after college were illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), enacted in 1938 and modified in 1947 to exempt a group called "trainees:" a broad group that has come to include the people we now think of as "interns." Only, this group is not really that broad, and employers everywhere have figured out how far to stretch the exemption.  The FLSA did things like establish the federal minimum wage, overtime pay, and end child labor. Pretty nifty, and pretty unimpeachable. Per Perlin, no one really argues with "the elimination of labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standards of living necessary for health, efficiency and well being of workers." Then came the 1947 exemption: "trainees" were allowed to receive a "training wage" that fell below minimum wage or even no wage at all, in exchange for vocational training.  There are VERY specific criteria which must be met for a position to qualify however, and EACH one of these must be met:
1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;

2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee;
3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer's operations may actually be impeded;
5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

Ask yourself if this list sounds like any internships you are familiar with or have participated in. The last two items on the list are perhaps more for the protection of the employer, so that they don't get left with some obligation of payment to the intern/trainee, and are the only ones that I've actually seen in practice. But I have never seen/heard of an internship with *any* of the criteria listed in numbers 1-4, let alone all 6, and remember, all 6 must be met for an internship to be exempt from the FLSA standards. This means that the thousands and thousands of unpaid and underpaid internships taking place each year are illegal. And no one is fighting it. Employers and universities (more later) are taking advantage of young people, students, unemployed people, sector switchers, under-employed, etc, in an enormous, unregulated way.

There are a multitude of problems with this.  Legally, unpaid interns are not considered employees, no matter how long they've worked there. No pay=no rights. Perlin describes the case of one student in New York who was required to do an internship in order to receive her degree in social work.  Immediately on beginning her internship, where she did the same work as a paid employee (a clear violation of numbers three and four above), she was the subject of sexual harassment.  She attempted to sue the harassing doctor under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, but the case was thrown out of district and appeals courts "holding that Bridget didn't count as an employee, and therefore had no right even to stand in the courtroom and make her case." The reason she wasn't counted as an employee? She was unpaid. As Perlin writes: "no wages, no benefits, no vacations, no overtime or sickpay--therefore also no rights in court."

Here's one of the places where the universities come in.  Bridget was required to do an internship to complete her degree, under the theory, one supposes (I don't know exactly how it went down at Bridget's school) that work experience is a) complimentary to classroom experience and b) vital to post-graduation employment success, especially in a field like social work. In this way alone, universities are condoning the industry of internships whereby kids go and provide unpaid labor to a variety of employers. In the meantime, universities help employers feel better: "a convenient myth has been making the rounds that interns earning academic credit fall outside the FSLA. A significant percentage of employers using unpaid interns now hide behind this urban legend, requiring their interns to be enrolled in college and to submit proof of the credit received for an internship." Even better, the colleges make money for each credit- and sometimes substantial money. "Colleges and universities have allowed the academic credit myth to spread in part because these credits, closely linked to tuition, now form a significant revenue stream at may institutions." Perlin gives numerous examples of the ways people make money off students' unpaid labor: some colleges won't give credit for internships, but studetns want the "jobs," so they find colleges who will give credit and pay close to 5,000 for the "privilege" of a useless credit. Other colleges accept the credits, and why not? They don't have to teach the students anything, or really do much of anything: the students find the internships, pay for the privilege of having a credit on their transcript, and the college has no overhead.  It's free tuition. Additionally "situated learning" and "experiential learning" are in right now, along with the idea that a kid needs an internship to get a job. So what if not much learning is done? So what if no skills are learned at the job? Academies respond, necessarily to pressure from persuasive, influential, and monied parents, and internships are hot on the lips of these folks. So what that academia was behind the initial move towards the FSLA and the end of child labor in the first place? Internships are educational!

I'm working backwards: maybe we could call it saving the best for last.  Because Ross Perlin starts "Intern Nation" with one of my favorite subjects: Disney! Way back in 1955, Disney created "Disney University" as the training division of the mega-corporation, and starting in 1972, outside universities really started sending students there.  First came a hotel management department in New York, then a culinary school in Rhode Island who wanted to use the much bigger kitchen space (get it? schools saving money by partnering with corporations?), and in the 1980 the "College Program" was born. Interns lived on site, paying for room/board out of their tiny paycheck, and do pretty much any shit work you can think of at the park: cleaning hotel rooms, making french fries, etc.  Unionized Disney workers are being slowly replaced by sleights of hand: "casual workers" (interns, college program interns, part-timers, casual temporaries, etc) cannot exceed more than 35% of hours worked at Disney World. At this point, these casual workers make up 1 out of every 4 hours worked, but the numbers can be tweaked deceivingly, and Disney doesn't really care how they are balanced out.  Further, there's been a hiring freeze on full-timers, but of course no freeze on (underpaid and untrained) interns who rotate in and out. Add this to my long line of concerns about Disney.

Beyond the basic issues I've laid out here, Perlin goes through a whole list of equally or more disturbing effects of internships. There's the Washington DC internships that are basically filled through nepotism, or at the very least through connections, which means there is no sense of meritocracy, or a chance for anyone new to make it in.  This, of course, has racial and class implications: how can new leadership emerge if they can't get the resume padding needed from the posh internship if they can't get the posh internship in the first place? Further, most internships have this risk: unpaid and even underpaid internships are a financial hardship for all but the wealthy, which means that the average student cannot afford to pay to play at work.  Colleges requiring internships are thus solidifying an already existing unequal playing field.  Further, with no evidence that these internships lead to real jobs, real WORK during the school year or summers might actually be more important than internships, but is downgraded: no internship, no credits, no resume padding. 

And no one is saying anything. Read it and fight back.