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More on unpaid internships

The Post-Gazette’s Michelle Hackeman interviewed us for this wonderful piece on unpaid internships and the Fair Labor Standard Act.  As Michelle reports, college students seek internships to gain job experience and learn what cannot be learned in a classroom.  That experience is supposed to give them a leg up on their competitors when they graduate and are applying for jobs.  But what happens when employers hire interns for no pay and then assign them menial work?  The employer gains an unfair advantage over its competitors and swindles the student interns who choose to invest in their future careers by working without pay in the short term.  Such conduct has broad repercussions, as Michelle reports in her article.

Many students debate the value of unpaid internships – By Michelle Hackeman / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Up until her junior year at Chatham University, Elizabeth Dorssom supplemented the hours she poured into her schoolwork with a job at a Bath & Body Works store. She would need the extra money: In May 2012, she graduated with $40,000 in student loan debt.

Ms. Dorssom knew, like many of her college-age peers, that a bachelor’s degree would not be her ticket to securing a job. So in her junior year, she quit her job to take an internship at the Allegheny County district attorney’s office, which didn’t offer her payment for the work.

The plight of the unpaid intern has gained notoriety following a lawsuit in New York against Fox Searchlight Pictures, the producer of the movie “Black Swan” that employed several unpaid production interns on its set. Judge William Pauley of the southern district of New York, who ruled in favor of the interns in June, said Fox had violated federal labor laws by not offering its interns proper compensation, though it had benefited from the interns’ work.

“I have heard employers say that they just love their unpaid interns because they see them as free employees,” said Charles Lamberton, president of the Pittsburgh-based Lamberton law firm who represents plaintiffs in employment disputes and other civil rights cases.

“For so many of these interns, the entry-level position is an unpaid internship. There’s no other way in. That’s the door they have to go through.”

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulates pay and overtime, an internship program can be unpaid if it meets several criteria. The internship must contain a significant training component, comparable to an education program. The intern’s work must not benefit the employer, “and on occasion its operations may even be impeded.”

According to the judge’s decision, the experience and connections that an intern gains while working are not sufficient forms of compensation to justify not paying them the minimum wage.

The ramifications of this ruling may have the effect of leveling the playing field for students who seek work experience before they apply for full-time jobs.

In recent years, college students and employers have increasingly regarded internships as stepping stones on the way to full-time employment, so much so that the internship has come to replace a traditional entry-level position.

In a 2009 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than three quarters of employers said they prefer job candidates with the requisite experience that can be gained through an internship.

But about half of the internships in the United States are unpaid, according to a 2013 survey by the association.

For some students, working for free carries few costs. Other than the time they are sacrificing without pay, they can save money by living at home or asking parents to assist with living expenses. But for others, taking an unpaid internship means forgoing much-needed earnings.

Mike Howie, who graduated from Robert Morris University in May without a job waiting for him, began looking for unpaid internships to gain experience. He said that, though the situation was far from ideal, he could afford to do so because his family will allow him to live at home.

“It would be a major setback — I want to move out, I want to start making money and saving money,” he said.

For her part, Ms. Dorssom was able to work at the district attorney’s office for 10 hours a week because she spent an equal number of hours working as a secretary at her campus’s police department. The money she made that summer covered her rent and living expenses, but stretched no further.

Many internships require students to obtain course credit for their work as a form of compensation, a practice that the judge in New York pronounced illegal. What often goes unmentioned is that obtaining course credit costs money, as universities consider it the equivalent of taking a class over the summer.

Most of the major universities in the Pittsburgh area offer course credit for internships, including Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, Chatham and Penn State University. The price of a three-credit internship can range anywhere from $500 to $3,000.

Chatham, Ms. Dorssom’s alma mater, recently made completion of an internship one of its graduation requirements. “The university really regards this as an academic endeavor,” said Chris Miller, director of career development. “It is considered part of their tuition — just as they pay for any other class, they’re paying for that credit.”

Jennifer Gosslin, a Pittsburgh native and a senior at West Virginia University in Morgantown, W.Va,, also faced an internship-for-credit policy.

After working as a news broadcaster at her college radio station, she wanted to try her hand at commercial radio with an unpaid internship at Froggy Radio in Pittsburgh. But the internship would have cost her $3,000 in course credits, not counting any of the living costs she would incur over the summer. She opted to work at a Bridgeville restaurant instead.

“I think it’s really stupid that you have to pay thousands of dollars to get this experience for free and give up time from your actual job in the process,” she said.

Tresa Weimer, the interim director of financial aid and scholarships at WVU, said that, in cases such as that of Ms. Gosslin, the financial aid office would advise students to pursue private loans.

Since unpaid internships have such a high threshold of entry, economists and public policy experts have begun pointing to them as a major block to economic mobility. As the theory goes, only students wealthy enough are able to accept unpaid internships, and the experience they gain gives them a leg up over lower-income students who could not afford to work without pay.

“As an economic reality, a lot of people are economically shut out of those sorts of career opportunities,” Mr. Lamberton said. “People in that income group, they don’t have savings. It’s just not an opportunity that they can pursue.”

Even if the New York lawsuit does effect broader change, its purview only extends as far as internships in the for-profit sector. Under federal labor law, government agencies and nonprofits can still hire unpaid interns, since the law states that they are volunteering their time.

“I’m most worried about this in places like government, where it’s important to have people representing different income brackets,” said Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

“But the only people who have the experience to get a job on Capital Hill are the people who can afford it — the people whose parents were able to support them through their unpaid internships. That’s very bad for our democracy.”

Unfortunately for Ms. Dorssom, the public sector is definitely where her interest lies. Even after completing her unpaid internship at the district attorney’s office, she has still struggled to find work.

When no job opened up after her graduation last year, she enrolled in an online public policy graduate program at the California State University, Northridge. She chose the online program so that she does not have to pay for room and board.

“I know that when I finish my master’s degree, a lot of the jobs I will want require experience, but I can’t get the experience if no one will hire me,” she said. “Still, I can’t take an internship unless it’s virtual or paid. Because I can’t afford the gas money to commute.”

Michelle Hackman: [email protected] or at 412-263-1969.
First Published July 14, 2013 12:00 am


CNBC Special Report, Charles Lamberton discusses paid sick leave

In this CNBC Special Report, I discuss the lack of paid sick leave in the United States with CNBC’s Mark Koba.  The United States is the only advanced Country on Earth that does guarantee some form of paid sick leave for employees when they are sick or injured.  The absence of paid sick leave hits low income earners especially hard.  It also causes many people to report to work sick rather than stay home and recuperate from their illness.

Click the image to read the full article.

They violated the Hatch Act

That’s what we told Connor Adams Sheets of the International Business Times who interviewed us for his recent exclusive report on the politically charged, anti-Obama, anti-Democrat emails exchanged among several federal employees during work hours and using federal computer systems.  As Connor reported today:

A group of employees at Cincinnati’s beleaguered Internal Revenue Service field office used IRS computers and email accounts to exchange dozens of emails during the months leading up to the 2008 presidential election among a group of friends and colleagues dubbed the “Neanderthals,” discussing national politics in a manner that two employment lawyers say likely violated federal law.

And certain decisions about who to promote within the office were decided in part based on considerations of employees’ political leanings, according to a longtime Cincinnati IRS field-office employee who declined to be identified but provided the internal emails to International Business Times.

The 80 politically charged emails were sent among members of a group of more than 20 people, including at least eight employees of the Cincinnati IRS field office’s Employee Plans Office, part of the Tax Exempt & Government Entities Division there, which is already embroiled in a national scandal over its targeting of conservative groups for added scrutiny in the run-up to the 2012 election.

The discussions amount to “overt political activity that violated the Hatch Act,” according to Charles Lamberton, president and principal of Pittsburgh’s Lamberton Law Firm LLC, which specializes in employee and workplace law.

Hatch Act is shorthand for An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, a law enacted in 1939 and most recently amended in 2012 that aims to keep political activity out of federal, state and local government workplaces.

The law specifically states, “Less restricted federal employees [a group that includes IRS employees] may not engage in political activity — i.e., activity directed at the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group — while the employee is on duty, in any federal room or building, while wearing a uniform or official insignia, or using any federally owned or leased vehicle.”

It goes on to outline examples of activities prohibited under that provision, including the use of “any email account or social media to distribute, send or forward content that advocates for or against a partisan political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group,” a restriction Lamberton believes the Neanderthals clearly violated.

“I don’t know how you look at emails of this sort and not determine on its face that there was overt political activity that violates the Hatch Act,” Lamberton said. “What is the essential [tenor] of the communication? If it’s just expressing an opinion, that’s okay, but when it crosses over into something that is advocating in favor of one and against another — that ‘against another’ really is key — that becomes a problem…. If it starts to now compare and contrast between the performance of one candidate and the performance of another, and takes positions in favor of one and against another, now that’s political activity, and that can be very problematic for the employee who engaged in it.”

Martin Sheen – A lifetime in the cause of civil rights and economic justice

On April 13, 2013, the Pittsburgh employment lawyers at the Lamberton Law Firm proudly celebrated Martin Sheen’s lifetime of service and dedication to the causes of workers’ rights, civil rights and global peace.  Mr. Sheen has been a friend of labor for more than 40 years and been arrested 66 times in acts of civil disobedience.  His principles and unwavering commitment to progressive values eclipse even his great talents as one of the finest actors in history.

Click on this picture and listen to a man speaking from his heart on the causes of his life.  Mr. Sheen reminds us of why a life given to the causes of workers’ rights and civil rights is a good life.

Results: $500,000 in pregnancy discrimination case

Mr. Lamberton recently obtained a significant recovery for a client in a pregnancy
discrimination case, involving a current cash component and reinstatement offer
with a combined total cash value of more than $500,000.  The employer will also
revamp its written employment policies, and provide training to its managers on
the civil rights laws.



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