Juliet Lapidos had a nice editorial in The New York Times on Saturday that took on the issue of unpaid internships—based on the recent news about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In foundation using Facebook to find a “part-time, unpaid” intern “with editorial and social chops” as well as “Web skills.” Lapidos reports that the ensuing uproar made the foundation reconsider and promise to pay the rather skilled employee they were looking for. Given that an estimated two-thirds of unpaid interns are women, and given that unpaid internships on average lead to much poorer employment prospects than do paid internships (fewer job offers and much lower salary offers), Lean In’s attempt to exploit this sketchy alternative to paid employment was embarrassing. The way to help young women get ahead is to pay them for their work, for their “editorial chops” and for their web skills, not to exploit them.
Lapidos made an important point about what’s needed to change the culture that makes this exploitation seem OK. A recent spate of lawsuits has brought the law to the attention of many employers for the first time, and it is dawning on some of them that there is a risk to cheating young workers out of the minimum wage. But interns looking for references for their resumes are unlikely to sue, and most cases–even if meritorious–don’t involve enough back pay to be worth a private lawyer’s time. What’s needed is energetic enforcement by the U.S. Department of Labor and the various state departments of labor. Very little effort would be required to make a difference. If investigators scanned Craigslist they could find plenty of cases to prosecute, and with appropriate publicity and media attention it wouldn’t take long for employers to catch on and clean up their act.
As Lapidos put it, “proper enforcement of labor law shouldn’t depend on exploited interns’ willingness to suffer through courtroom ordeals.” That’s what we pay government lawyers for.