Exploiting Interns for Profit and Not

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans     Turns out that Charlie Rose, the TV personality on PBS, was one of many outfits that used unpaid interns in place of wage-based staff to do the basics in putting together his TV show from research to guest codling to whatever.  He stands out now only because he got caught.  Steven Greenhouse reports in the Times:

Charlie Rose and his production company have agreed to pay as much as $250,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by a former unpaid intern who claimed minimum-wage violations.  Under the settlement, which was announced on Thursday, Mr. Rose and his production company, Charlie Rose Inc., will pay back wages to a potential class of 189 interns. The settlement calls for many of the interns to receive about $1,100 each — $110 a week in back pay, up to a maximum of 10 weeks, the approximate length of a school semester.

A settlement is different than a confession.  Rose insists that these were interns “pure and simple,” he shouldn’t be paying a dime, but it was cheaper to pay off the interns than pay his lawyers to fight the mess.  In fact his disclaimer was memorialized in the actual settlement agreement!

This settlement agreement states that Mr. Rose and his production company “do not admit any liability or wrongdoing” and that they agreed “solely for the purpose of avoiding the costs and disruption of ongoing litigation and to settle all claims.”

What’s the news here?  Certainly it is not the fact that big time companies would prey on young people’s hopes, ambitions, and in the current economy, their desperation to get a real job, especially one that doesn’t involve a hot grill and hamburgers.

The lawyer collecting 20% of the settlement from Rose, Inc. says this is a major breakthrough in the fight against peonage.  Maybe, yes? Maybe, no?

I love my “intern army,” as I’ve called them over the years, but they are all students working from Toronto or Edinburgh or Atlanta or Little Rock or Mexico City on specially designed projects for which they are getting class credit for capstone projects or community service requirements.  They are invaluable, but they are not replacing paid staff.  They are value-added, worshipped, and, if they didn’t exist, that work would simply not be done.

But, one of my colleagues blurted out a curse yesterday in my earshot, and I asked what the matter was.  She said she was reading the nonprofit offerings on Craigslist in the New Orleans area and every one of them was for an unpaid internship.  It’s hard to believe that some of these posts aren’t showing in the same time zone with the same production values as Charlie Rose.

It is one thing to be low paid.  That goes hand and glove with nonprofit work.  No paid though is an entirely different situation.  Before we start pointing our fingers too hard, some of us might have to clean up our own act.  You think?