Monday, April 5, 2010

Are Hollywood Internships Illegal?

I've blogged extensively about how doing an internship in Hollywood can be beneficial in making contacts and can possibly lead to a paid gig. But are Hollywood internships illegal? The New York Times ran an interesting piece about the subject.

For an internship to be legal, it needs to satisfy the following six criteria:

  • The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction
  • The training is for the benefit of the trainees
  • The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation
  • The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded
  • The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period
  • The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training 

Based on that, a lot of Hollywood internships are probably illegal. If your entire day consists of making copies and fetching coffee, you're not learning something that would be taught in a traditional academic setting, and it's not really for your benefit. An intern should not essentially be an unpaid PA or assistant.

But what can you do? As the article points out:
Many regulators say that violations are widespread, but that it is unusually hard to mount a major enforcement effort because interns are often afraid to file complaints. Many fear they will become known as troublemakers in their chosen field, endangering their chances with a potential future employer.
We all want to prove how hard-working we are, and we know that if we refuse to do menial work, our employers could post an ad on Craigslist and have 200 wannabe replacements show up within the hour. 

Keep in mind that some menial work is part of all internships. If you make a lot of copies but also learn how to write good coverage, then the internship isn't illegal. After reading these criteria, I'm certain that three of my four internships were definitely legal. But with companies looking to cut costs, we have to hold them accountable.
Employers posted 643 unpaid internships on Stanford’s job board this academic year, more than triple the 174 posted two years ago.
It can't just be coincidence. Companies know they can get high-quality workers for free. Even more insidiously, the prevalence of unpaid internships favors people who come from wealthy families and don't need to support themselves. People suggest that talent agencies do the same thing with their ridiculously low wages of $350-500 a week. You might argue that they're weeding out people who aren't really passionate and hard-working, but they're also weeding out people whose parents aren't sending them gobs of cash. How is any kind of social mobility possible in this environment?

So, what can we do? Internships have been part of television and film for a long time, and will likely remain that way. As a prospective intern, protect yourself. Don't be above doing menial tasks, but make sure you're getting something worthwhile out of the internship (I've blogged about this before). If you're in the position of supervising interns, make sure you take the time to teach them about what you and you company do. Internships should be educational, benefitting the intern and not the company. Otherwise, you're breaking the law.


Dan Williams said...

There may be concerns here and there, and from one employer to another. But it may not be a wise thing to try to change the system at an employer's or to try to fight against the attitudes of some of the bosses there--unless it's really a terribly glaring thing--unless it's just blatant racism or sexism or something.

It's sort of "fighting to feel comfortable" versus "fighting to be creative and good." The writer wants to work on creativity, so if there's not a comfort level in place, it might be wiser to look around or just to shrug it off.

Fighting the system uses a lot of energy. The time to do so, I think, is when the person is in a position of power rather than the bottom of the totem pole.

The Bitter Script Reader said...

Just want to say this is a really good post and every aspiring looking for work should learn to watch out for themselves. And there are watchdog outfits in place to prevent exploitation. A few years back, weren't a few of the agencies slapped pretty hard by the CA Dept. of Labor over unpaid overtime? (Thought I read this on Deadline, but Google searches aren't turning up anything.)

The "no immediate advantage" clause is one that probably would red-flag a LOT of "internships." And I say this as a guy who has seen his incoming workload directly suffer because of companies bringing in interns to do the reading that would normally go to people like me.