Recently, there’s been lots of talk regarding the legality of unpaid internships. The New York Times, for instance, ran a story over the weekend about how labor officials in several states believe that most unpaid interns should be paid minimum wage. Patricia Smith, the federal Labor Department’s top official, has said that she and staff are planning to enforce labor laws on a national level.
What does this exactly mean for the fashion? Our industry, and most creative industries, rely on unpaid interns to make things happened. If we didn’t have unpaid assistants working on set, or in the office, magazines wouldn’t get published, film wouldn’t get developed, and fashion shows wouldn’t run so smoothly.
I know that, during my time in college, I did four internships, one of which I was paid a commission on sales that I closed. (It was at a boutique/art gallery.) However, the other three internships, which were in editorial, were unpaid. One landed me my first job out of college. Britt’s senior year internship also resulted in a job right out of school.
The good news: According to our better-educated colleagues at Above the Law, interns who are unpaid but receive college credit are fine. As are interns who are being mentored and educated by their superiors. The bad news: 18-hour days working on a shoot or a day spent cleaning the office–for free–is going to be harder for an employer to defend. That is, if labor officials do indeed question the company’s practices.
Thomas Onorato, a partner at New York public relations and events firm OW!, says that he sympathizes with both sides of the debate. “People mismanage their interns and turn them into personal assistants or a messenger service,” says Onorato. “Our small PR and event business would not run without the help of our amazing interns (which are very hard to find by the way!).”
On the other hand, he also worries that companies who can’t afford to pay interns minimum wage will become less effective, and that the lack of internships will leave many who aspire to break into the industry unprepared, not to mention deflated.
“I personally would not be where I am without the two amazing internships I had while in college. Yes, I got a lot of coffee and ran errands but I also watched and learned so much,” he says. “Many successful people in our industry started this way and it’s ridiculous to think these great opportunities for young professionals would all of a sudden go away.”
Whether you’ve been an intern, you are an intern, or you want to be an intern, what do you think?
Should everyone be paid something, or are unpaid internships simply a part of getting your foot in the door?