CBS Sunday Morning, a show that used to have at least a veneer of social conscience, ran a free-market biased piece on unpaid internships this week. Among the things they didn’t mention: That unpaid internships are frequently illegal (and why), that schools actually charge the students for the academic credit (so you’re not only working for free, you’re paying for the privilege), and that we’re seeing even more of a class stratification in influential fields like the media and public policy, because poor and working class kids can’t really afford to take those high-status internships.
Maybe that’s why one of the CBS interns who worked on the piece (for a $50 a week stipend – barely enough to cover subway fare) had this to say: “I was really surprised by the fact that so many people are against internships being unpaid. There were a lot of people that I found who were like, ‘It’s illegal. It’s unfair.’ I was so surprised that so many people were saying that,” Berg said.
But instead, the piece turns into a bootstrap lecture where if you “think big” and “have the guts to start from the bottom,” you can work for free, become a consultant and live happily ever after!
Ladies and gentlemen, your librul media!
Asked if interns are getting a raw deal, he told Smith, “Absolutely they’re getting a raw deal, and they don’t even know it.”
Eisenbrey is vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a non-profit Washington think tank. Unpaid internships, he says, are taking paid jobs away from people who need them.
“This is a concern that economists have: ‘Why isn’t business hiring people?'” he asked. “Well, if they can have people work for free why should they hire anyone? And in fact, I’d say, you know, if they could get them to work 60 or 70 hours a week without paying them, so much the better. They don’t have to pay them overtime, I mean, where does this stop?”
And there’s another problem, Eisenbrey says increasingly the top internships are going to kids from the top of the income ladder. “Who can afford to come to Washington and spend $4,000 on housing and food and then work without being paid? It is not the children of farm workers or factory workers or, you know, the children of people who are unemployed right now. It’s going to be upper middle class kids,” he explained.
“Sunday Morning” intern Erika Mahoney agrees. Like all 75 summer interns at CBS, she receives a $50 per week stipend.
“My parents are helping me out a lot. And, you know, it’s hard to think about that because I have friends who wouldn’t be able to do something like this. And so, you know, every day I call my parents and I tell them everything about my day because I know that, like, that’s how I can show my appreciation,” she told Smith.
“You seem to feel a little guilty about this,” Smith asked.
“I do,” Mahoney admitted.
“What’s wrong with workin’ for free? If a kid says, ‘I want to do it, I want the experience,’ what’s wrong with that?” Smith asked.
“Well, you could say that. And if they could persuade people to work for half of the minimum wage, if they could get adults to work for free for six months, not just young people, then why not, what’s wrong with that?” Eisenbrey replied. “Well, it degrades the entire value of work. And that’s actually going on in our society.”
But in this economy, some people would rather work for nothing than not work at all, and it’s not only kids. After 10 years fundraising for various non-profit groups in Knoxville, Tenn., Kristina Shands found herself suddenly unemployed.
“It literally was within 15 minutes: I had no job, I had no health insurance, I had nothing,” she remembered.
A life-long hockey fan, she took a bold step and at age 38 talked her way into an un-paid internship with a minor league hockey team, The Knoxville Ice Bears.
“I just started working the games, press releases, post-game summaries, helping with promotions and marketing and did that for the entire 2009-2010 season,” Shands explained. “It was strange at times. I mean I’m working with 20 year olds, and I’m almost twice their age.”
But it worked: That unpaid intern, is now a paid media consultant. “You gotta be able to think big and then have the guts to kind of start from the bottom and figure it all out. And maybe you’ll hit the jackpot like I did,” Shands said.
And if you don’t? If your unemployment runs out, you have no health insurance and you can’t pay your rent, I guess you just don’t know how to “think big.”