Suing for Justice? The Coming End of Unpaid Internships

Another big media company will provide backpay for a slew of underpaid and overworked interns, as magazine publisher Condé Nast (owner of Vogue and Vanity Fair, among others) agreed to $5.8 million to settle a class-action suit with roughly 7500 former interns. The suit was brought against the publisher in June 2013, alleging that interns were offered little or no pay, with no restrictions on work hours. Condé Nast decided to terminate their internship program later that year, saying that it "allows us to focus our time and resources on developing meaningful, new opportunities to support future up-and-coming talent."

Earlier this month, nearly 9,000 unpaid interns stand to benefit from a $6.4 million settlement with NBCUniversal over owed wages. There was a class-action suit brought against the media conglomerate back in July claiming that NBCUniversal was classifying workers as non-employee interns and had them performing actual employee work with little or no compensation. This follows a 2013 ruling that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated labor standards with interns on the set of Black Swan and also numerous lawsuits against other companies in the entertainment industry, including record companies, magazine publishers, and TV talk shows. 

We talked with Mikey Franklin, the executive director of The Fair Pay Campaign, who is fighting to end the practice of the unpaid internship once and for all.

Q: What is the justification for unpaid internships? Do you support them?
If you want a justification for unpaid internships, ask someone else. I run the national campaign against Unpaid Internships, so I’m going to tell you why they’re terrible.

People should be paid to work. If you work for an employer - whether it’s a for-profit company, a non-profit organization, or a government body - you deserve to be paid.

Unpaid internships are affirmative action for the wealthy. For most 21st century careers, internships are the essential first “foot in the door.” Only people who have another way of paying their bills can take unpaid internships, and that’s leaving hundreds of thousands of people out, perpetuating income inequality on a mass scale.

Q: What is the difference between unpaid internships and volunteer work?
This is a tricky one, but let’s have a go:

You can be an intern at a for-profit company, a non-profit organization, or a government agency. You can only volunteer for a non-profit.

An internship is an entry-level job by another name. Paid or unpaid, we do internships for career advancement and networking. Volunteering, on the other hand, is normally done for ideological reasons. That’s not to say that you can’t be an intern at an organization you really believe in, but you’re normally doing your internship to make connections, and gain experience; getting your “foot in the door.”

As an intern, you’ll normally have most of the same structures in place as an employee. You’ll probably be expected to come in and leave at set hours each day, for a fixed period of time. You’re also likely to have specific delineated responsibilities. As a volunteer, all of those things are a lot less likely.

In a nutshell: If you’re doing work that would otherwise be done by regular employee, you’re an intern. If not, you’re not.

Q: I'm a recent college grad with significant student loan debt. Is there any evidence that my current unpaid internship will lead to a substantially higher salary in my next job?
Put simply, no. It can be very tempting to accept an unpaid internship, because anything is better than nothing, but unpaid internships are a lot less likely to lead to well-paid jobs than paid internships.

Q: Is there a way I can get more information about which types of internships are paid before I apply?
Most ads for internships advertise whether or not they’re paid. Remember, internships at for-profit companies are mostly illegal, so if you see a for-profit company advertising for unpaid interns, let them know that they’re breaking the law!

Q: How are for-profit companies who don't pay their interns breaking the law?
We have a minimum wage law in America, and just because you call someone an intern, it doesn't mean you get out of paying them. The Department of Labor has clear and strict standards when it comes to unpaid internships: if interns are doing work that benefits their employer, they have a legal right to be paid!

Q: What can people do to help your campaign?
If you're a college student, let's work together organize for paid internships on your campus. If you're an unpaid intern, we'll help you pressure your employer for pay. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, join us at, email us at