I have written a few different posts about unpaid internships. Thankfully companies are starting to convert their unpaid internship programs to paid positions due to legal pressure. Individual lawsuits and government action at the state and federal levels have shed light on how widespread unpaid internships had become. In the media industry unpaid internships were/are especially common. As a result media companies like Hearst Magazines, Fox Searchlight, Gawker, Condé Nast, and Warner Music have all been subject to lawsuits claiming violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Combating illegal unpaid internships had been difficult because potential plaintiffs were hesitant to come forward and sue the company that had given them the internship. Internships are now the main path of entry into a number of industries and some potential plaintiffs felt, probably with good reason, that filing a lawsuit over an illegal internship would affect their ability to get a job in the future.
It takes a brave person to stand up to a big company in a glamourous industry and say “enough!” Kimberley Behzadi was brave enough to be that person.
Ms. Behzadi got an internship with ICM partners, a huge literary and talent agency. Over a five month period Ms. Behzadi worked long hours for no pay. Ms. Behzadi realized that making a stink about the lack of pay would imperil her chances of getting a job in the industry after graduation.
“Unpaid internships are almost an acceptable thing in the industry — there were 100 other people who wanted my internship. If I voiced grievances about not getting paid, I would have been bumped out and that would leave me nowhere, with little chance of finding work in the industry.”
Like most unpaid internships, Ms. Behzadi spent most of her time doing work that benefited the her employer. For example she would read and summarize scripts, answer phones, do expense accounts for agents and maintain the weekly calendar of comedy events to help the agency scout up-and-coming comedians. ICM said in legal filings that it ran an “educational internship program” but I don’t know what Ms. Behzadi learned other than simple administrative skills.
Even though these internships teach few actual skills, they are still in high demand. ICM said its “academic internships” were coveted, with more than 300 people applying a year and only 10 to 15 percent of applicants being given internships. Kids realize that these unpaid internships are becoming almost the only way to break into many industries.
Without people like Ms. Behzadi willing to put it on the line we all would be a little bit worse off. In the US individuals can make a big difference in all of our lives by bringing the right lawsuit at the right time.