Get your own coffee

Companies that treat interns as slave labor are beginning to pay the price.

click to enlarge Get your own coffee - Billy Merritt
Billy Merritt
Get your own coffee

We file papers eagerly, fetch coffee with vigor, and invest ourselves wholly into any menial task our bosses might hand off to us. And though it’d be welcome, we don’t ask for money — we’re here for the practical experience, an advanced look at our (hopefully) future careers.

Some of us are lucky enough to escape the menial chores and actually apply the skills we’re looking to develop: Here at CL, the nine summer interns pitched, wrote and edited almost an entire issue (and none of us has been asked to pick up a latte yet). But whether we’re engrossed in big creative projects or just taking lunch orders, we’re all broke college students and we’re probably not getting paid.

Though the nine of us are happy just to be here, many unpaid interns elsewhere in the United States are fed up with their wageless workweeks. In the past few years, rightfully angsty millennials have filed lawsuits against some major corporations. The commotion began in 2011 when interns on the set of Black Swan sued Fox Searchlight for wages. The next year, interns at Harper’s Bazaar and The Charlie Rose Show hopped on the vengeance bandwagon, also seeking reparations.

The legality of unpaid internships is determined by U.S. Department of Labor criteria. According to these rules, unpaid internships cannot provide an immediate advantage to the employer; interns’ work must serve as vocational training in an educational environment; the internship must exist to benefit the intern and not the employer; and interns’ work must not displace that of regular employees.

If an intern is working for academic credit, as most of us are at CL, similar criteria apply. Schools usually require evidence that a student’s internship was educational in nature. In the case of USF St. Petersburg’s Department of Journalism and Media Studies, for instance, employers must give a full post-internship evaluation of the student’s progress and abilities in such areas as reporting and investigation skills, beat/resource development and teamwork.

Lawyers throughout the country, such as those involved with Intern Justice, a group specializing in unpaid internship lawsuits, believe many companies are blindly breaking the internship rules. And the courts are agreeing. Though unpaid interns have yet to win big, all three lawsuits mentioned have resulted in some sort of compensation or procedural improvement.

Leah Stoffel, 24, knows the plight of the intern all too well. Her unpaid internship in the professional sports industry left her not only broke, but hungry.

“Most weeks I have to make the decision if I want to eat or put gas in my car,” she said. “The good news is I’ve lost 10 pounds.”

Stoffel, a recent University of Central Florida grad, works 40-hour weeks doing athlete development for her internship in Tampa. During the week, she sleeps on a friend’s couch in St. Petersburg. On the weekends, it’s back home to Leesburg to work at her family’s business — her only source of income. “There is no way for me to make ends meet only being paid for 15 hours a week,” she said. “Ultimately, I have supported myself all summer on credit cards.”

On top of working for free full-time during the week and commuting an hour and a half to Leesburg on the weekends (to barely make gas money), Stoffel also had to drive to Orlando for 6 hours of class at UCF each week while school was in session.

Stoffel said many of the projects she handles at her internship are things that probably wouldn’t get done if she were not there to do them (a no-no according to the U.S. Department of Labor). And though she doesn’t feel her work as an intern displaced that of a regular employee (also a no-no), Stoffel did say the company will be creating a full-time paid position to replace her when her internship ends.

Still, despite the long hours, forced weight loss, and unwelcome flirtation with the poverty line, Stoffel believes her internship has been valuable.

“I feel like the connections I have made are worth being broke,” she said.

Other local interns (interviewed by my fellow CL intern Meaghan Habuda) echo that sentiment.

“I was able to meet people in my field who all had different sets of experiences and advice,” said Gabriella Balsam, a 21-year-old USF Tampa student who interned for Tampa Bay Watch. “Through them, I found out about a networking organization that can help me break into the career I want to pursue.”

Internships can also be a source of inspiration, says Michelle Morenza, 21, a student at USF St. Petersburg who interned with World Partnerships for two years.

“The people you meet along the way through this kind of internship can truly inspire and guide you to realize that there are all kinds of careers out there and so many people that do wonderful things.”

But Morenza emphasizes that an intern should not be treated as some kind of lesser being.

“Just because you are an intern does not make you at all inferior or less capable. You are just as capable and have just as much potential as all your co-workers.”

Tyler Killette is a USF St. Petersburg senior and editor-in-chief of her school’s newspaper, The Crow’s Nest. A caffeine junkie, her greatest passion is writing, and she often gets antsy when not working on a project. The 20-year-old South Tampa native spends her spare time attending concerts, mostly post-rock and punk, and when she isn’t doing that she is reinventing her already trendy style: thrifting is a favorite hobby, and she’s always on the lookout for that perfect vintage sundress. —Amina Jackson