Could You Afford to Work for Just a MetroCard?

Former intern Steve Cohen recently published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal defending unpaid internships. He wrote that, while his internships consisted of “grunt work,” they gave him priceless access: “The most valuable purpose [of internships] is exposure.”

According to Cohen, when he received a subway pass as payment for his otherwise-uncompensated contributions, he thought, “Isn’t that nice?” For most people trying to earn a living, that reaction would be puzzling.

As ABC News reports, Cohen is fortunate enough to have resources: he is a middle-aged lawyer and former media executive. Most people can’t afford to work for free.

Unpaid internships are often illegal under federal law. Lawsuits have been filed against Hearst and Fox Entertainment Group for their intern practices. Charlie Rose’s production company recently settled a suit brought by former unpaid interns for approximately $250,000, as described in Cohen’s op-ed: the company will “pay 189 former interns $1,100 apiece.”

The ABC News article details the changes that are threatening unpaid internships. The CEO of an intern-matching firm predicts “the elimination of programs that are genuinely exploitive and without academic merit.” As this blog has addressed, colleges have a role in internships that take advantage of students: universities often keep students in the dark about their rights.

The exposure provided by internships is valuable; that access can be crucial in advancing a career. This reality makes it even more important that internships not be limited to the rare worker who can afford to be unpaid.

ABC summarized conditions that the relevant laws hinge on: “whether the internships contributed to the interns’ educational experience” and “whether employers are in violation of a law prohibiting the use of unpaid interns as substitutes for regular, salaried employees.”

If you weren’t paid for your contributions as an intern, you deserve compensation. The Harman Firm can help: contact us before statues of limitation make recovering money impossible.