Scott Walters beats me to the punch in writing about unpaid internships. He links to a number of sources, including the NYTimes article that was going to form the basis of my post. It appears great minds think alike and, occasionally, so do mine and Scott's.
Anyway, Scott handles the elitism angle of the whole thing quite well. And I agree with everything he says. What he covers less and is also worth focusing on is the exploitation angle, which is the primary attack of the Times piece.
The Times only talks about internships in the for profit sector. I was interested if the rules are the same for non-profits. It appears the answer is yes. Many unpaid nonprofit internships are probably illegal. The six criteria they are supposed to meet are:
- 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;
- The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
- The trainees do no displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and, on occasion, the employer’s operations might actually be impeded;
- The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
- The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time training. (Note that as an exception to this criterion, tuition assistance and nominal stipends for students are not considered wages).
The article goes on to mention that frequently the Department of Labor does not require that all six be met, but rather they "follow Walling’s lead and analyze the economic reality of the training, focusing primarily on whether there was an expectation or contemplation of compensation and whether the employer received an immediate advantage from work completed."
The issue is that the Department of Labor does not want internships to be used to skirt minimum wage laws. We all know the nonprofit sector (or at least theatre) is rife with these programs. Yet we also live in a world where many theaters can barely afford the staff they do have. What is to be done?
And what of programs that aren't illegal but are clearly exploitative? I can think of at least one festival where you pay them to build their sets as an acting apprentice. Now, that's not illegal, but it certainly feels wrong in my book.