Monday, September 2, 2013

Another Unpaid Intern Sues—And He’s Hoping to Get a Class Action Suit Going

Valentino Smith, a former intern from Donna Karan International, is suing the designer house, claiming that his unpaid internship violated wage and hour law.

I’ll be honest. Every time I read another of these headlines, my heart warms.

It’s not that I’m happy about someone else’s troubles. No, not that. It’s just that I’ve never been a fan of the unpaid internship.

To my way of thinking, an unpaid internship equals free labor, and I’m not understanding why any for-profit organization should be entitled to free labor, especially in this economy.

As an HR professional, I’m well aware of the Department of Labor regulations that govern when unpaid internships are legal, and if an internship is structured so that it’s for the benefit of the intern and provides training similar to that given in an educational environment, I’ve got no beef with it.

However, so many unpaid internships don’t fit these criteria. At best, employers are opening their doors to interns with no real plan or program, allowing them to do grunt work while “soaking up a real world experience” (or so they say). At worst, employers are flat-out exploiting the interns’ desire for work experience to get something for nothing. Neither of these scenarios is good.

I feel a little (just a little) sorry for any employer who may have gotten on the wrong side of the law due to good intentions. But dang it, that’s why God created HR professionals. Hire one.

I feel much differently, however, about that other type of employer, the kind that’s been skirting the law and hiding behind tradition or “longstanding industry practices” while gaining an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

Check out this ad, pulled today from

“XXXXXXXX is a news aggregation site and political blog. We are looking for talented writers/bloggers to write opinion pieces, analysis or a combination of both in regards to today's political headlines and current events. XXXXXXXX covers both ends of the political spectrum and publishes … conservative and liberal content. This is a perfect opportunity to build your resume and get your work viewed by a worldwide audience.”

Now, let’s look at this. This is a political news site, seeking individuals to write political news pieces, an activity directly in line with its primary business. There’s no mention of training of any sort. Yes, it’s a brief ad and may not reflect the depth of the um … program, but it still smells fishy. Actually, it smells like an employment ad (albeit one for an entry level job).

But if it’s an entry-level job, then the employer should pay an entry-level wage, not zero wages, right?

And there’s nothing particularly unique about this ad. There are hundreds similar to it.

Since Adam, my twenty-year-old, started working a few years ago, I’ve done all that I can to ensure that his jobs are paid. The way I see it is, black folks have given enough of their free labor to the American economy—there’s absolutely no reason to give any more.

So call me biased. I can live with that.

And hey, it’s Labor Day—an especially appropriate time to ponder societal views of labor, wouldn’t you say?

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