Thursday, November 13, 2014


In a recent interview with HR maven Victoria Humphrey, Leonard Lopate broaches the contentious topic of unpaid interning. To which she, the purported employment expert, replies, "I guess I wasn't aware it was controversial." Off to a great start!

Lopate then explains about how some workers aren't keen on the whole not-getting-paid thing, but adds a not-so-surprising-for-media caveat: "In our field, it's the only way we find out whether somebody would be a good fit for us." Indeed, there appear to be two different tracks by which one can work for free for his show. (As best as I can tell, there's either volunteering or interning, the latter of which includes Metrocard fare.)

Lopate doesn't elaborate on why employee assessment a) can't be done through an application-and-interview process, or b) why, if a trial period is needed, it has to be unpaid. Low-paid is something one can work with. (I should know - I've been working with variants of it for some time now.) Unpaid is trickier to budget. The person being tried out doesn't magically lack living expenses, and if it turns out you're not "a good fit for" whichever industry, the time you spent working in it would be fairly useless but for the pay. It's not like a degree, which can be somewhat transferrable. But if all you have from a gig is the line on your resume, and that's not even a field you're entering, what's the use? (OK, fine, there's some use, in that it's better than nothing, but from the studies I've seen, it doesn't appear that "unpaid" is actually that much more helpful than "blank.")

Humphrey responds, "Oh yes, OK, now I understand," although it's clear from what follows that she hasn't the foggiest. She points out that unpaid internships can make someone more employable, which... are we going to expect her to be up on the research that says this isn't necessarily the case, she who's as good as never heard of the internship question until the past week or so? "It isn't like you're being forced, right?" No, not right, unless you're not counting coercion as a kind of forcing, but anyway. She continues: "I just don't understand why there would be any kind of quote unquote complaining about that from the intern's end. If you don't want to be an unpaid intern then go get a job." Lopate then says, "Well, if you can," to which she responds, "Yeah, I know, well, that's kind of my point, yeah." Yeah. But, I mean, what was she going to say, this workplace expert to whom it was news that unpaid work is controversial?

As best as I can tell, in the most generous interpretation, her "point" was that those losers who can't or won't get a job should be grateful for the opportunity to enjoy the sheer proximity to office life, which could - who knows? - trick down into some kind of money-providing job, at some point in the future. But my real concern here isn't this HR expert I'd never heard of before, but this seemingly left-wing radio host I've been listening to for ages. (Which is, I learned from this program, more than can be said for some people applying to work for him; for pay or not, I don't recall.) Why, Leonard Lopate, do you require unpaid labor to assess candidates? Don't you see how that essentially implies interns from rich families? And how that, in turn, impacts the coverage? (I, as someone who listens to the show regularly, could totally elaborate.) And that it's unfair even to kids from rich families, whose work is also work, and also deserves compensation (and no, subway fare isn't compensation)? Why is it that, in making the seemingly simple claim that work deserves pay, I end up to the left of the left? And what does it say that equivalent employers who present content to the right of what Lopate does are willing to pay at least something to their lowest-level employees?


Nicholas said...

As agreement with and expansion on your last point:

Maybe it's just the people I've known who kick around in Democratic-liberal-left organizations, but I assumed it was known that the conditions of working for them are in conflict with their nominal values. I have a very successful friend in policy who had the option to take an attractive job at a cut in pay, and when I asked if she could negotiate her salary, said the offer would be pulled if she tried; her present job is the first one that was unionized, even at a number of organizations that have serious name recognition as impeccably left. And some organizations are notoriously hostile to their labor, like the DNC. Why it is this way, I don't know, but it's widely and thoroughly that way.

Phoebe said...

"I assumed it was known that the conditions of working for them are in conflict with their nominal values."

It's... known but not known. Not sufficiently acknowledged. I think people get that you'll be paid more if you "quote unquote" (to borrow a phrase) sell out, but not that working for social justice often means accepting no pay whatsoever. See also: academia, where nuanced discussions of microaggresions in seminar can be followed by decades of adjuncting at something below a living wage, with no benefits.

caryatis said...

"It isn't like you're being forced, right?" No, not right, unless you're not counting coercion as a kind of forcing, but anyway."

I don't disagree with your larger point, but I still don't understand why you think people are forced to take unpaid internships. There *are* paid jobs available for recent liberal arts grads. That might mean not working for your dream company or in certain fields, which is not ideal, but, you know, those of us who are not independently wealthy have to make compromises in order to make a living.

Phoebe said...

I don't know what you mean by "those of us" - I had a decently-paid job after graduating, but that was in 2005. Jobs like it - and it was at a non-profit, but quite far from a glamor job - are now unpaid internships. If I-the-same-person graduated in 2010, say, I can't say what I'd have done. Plenty of people without independent funds are in unpaid internships or grad programs that may go nowhere, thanks to the existence of debt. Students are *advised* that taking unpaid internships is key to being employable. Sure, some may be taking them in lieu of paid employment, but many are doing so because, as far as they're aware, that's how one gets on the path to a real job.

caryatis said...

"Many are doing so because, as far as they're aware, that's how one gets on the path to a real job."

If so, they are wrong. There's a difference between someone who takes an unpaid internship because she mistakenly thinks it's the only option and someone who is coerced. I got a decently-paid entry-level job in 2009. No internship required--and I wouldn't have taken one because I believe in paying my own bills.