This was a good month to be a former Condé Nast intern—their checks finally arrived.
For the unfamiliar, about 7,500 interns sued Condé in a class-action lawsuit concerning the legality of unpaid labor. A year ago, the company agreed to pay them more than $5.8 million in back-wages. Many of those payments have been arriving the past few weeks.
The Condé settlement brings up a broader question about when, and whether, anyone should agree to work for free. Is it okay to ask a writer friend to take a friendly (read: unpaid) look at your résumé or job application? What if the friend is a photographer and you want him to take (free) professional shots at your wedding? Or an accountant, and you want her to do your taxes (for free)? Or in real-estate, and you need to find an apartment (with no fee)? The list is endless, and the boundaries aren’t clear.
No one chooses a career path expecting to owe all their friends and relatives freebies. Yet that doesn’t stop people from asking for them—and in some professions, freebies can help you excel.
Going back to the Condé example, young journalists are often told that it’s worth interning for no pay to get exposure or experience. Yet some become like temporary Fonzworth Bentleys to their bosses: arranging phone calls, making coffee, transcribing things, ferrying packages around the city. Not all interns mind that experience, and some enjoy it. (Others not so much.)
As a writer, the debate made me wonder: have things always been this way? And does working for free devalue the work itself?
I asked Jeff Bradley, a former sports writer who teaches journalism and blogs about life after newspapers, what he thought. He told me about his early days as a journalist, when there were well-paid, entry-level jobs as fact checkers and copy editors. It was really tedious work—his was cutting and pasting MLB box scores at Sports Illustrated. But it offered a salary, health insurance and a way to get his foot in the door.
Those kinds of jobs don’t exist in journalism today. But even so, Bradley said he wouldn’t advise against working for free in all circumstances.
"If I were a young journalist today, I'd probably write for ‘exposure’ as well,” he said. But, he added: “If you're writing for a [publication] that's selling ads and generating revenue, I think you should get paid.”
There’s a broader societal concern with professions where people are expected to work for free or get paid very little, in that the profession can become a playground for the wealthy. As a general rule that doesn’t matter much: who cares if rich people decide to become pastry chefs or Zamboni drivers? But when it comes to fields like journalism, law, finance, politics, regulation, and more creative areas like art, poetry and documentary filmmaking, it does matter. There needs to be economic diversity in fields where the work directly affects or reflects citizens’ economic lives, or else the work may not represent low-income people adequately.
Internships are an entrée into a field of work, so if interns aren’t paid, how will young people without any money get into those fields? Why would they choose those fields to begin with? Wide-eyed aspiration is nice, but it doesn’t pay the rent.
Even Charles Murray, a far-right intellectual not known for his compassion on social issues thinks unpaid internships at for-profit entities have to go. “It amounts to career assistance for rich, smart children” he wrote in the New York Times.
Yet, as long as “working for free” occupies a legal grey area, it’s hard to tell people not to do it. If you do work for free, it’s worth knowing the rules of the road.
First and foremost: unpaid internships are supposed to have learning value, according to the Department of Labor. That means if you’re an unpaid intern who does little more than lick envelopes, your employer may be taking advantage of you.
It’s also important to remember that as an unpaid worker you have leverage if you’re valuable to the organization. The worst they can do is fire you, but that’s not a huge threat to someone who isn’t being paid—especially if the person isn’t getting any value from the job outside of money. Use that leverage to your advantage, whether that means asking for flexible work hours and travel reimbursements, or asking for more substantial assignments that will help you learn.
If all else fails, you can always learn to code.
James is a writer from New York City who has worked for startups, and now works at a brand consultancy focusing on tech startups. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Investopedia, The Street, BlackBook and AmericaBlog.