Interns need to be adequately compensated for their work

In 2014, Condé Nast, the editorial giant that owns Vogue, Cosmopolitan and GQ, settled a class action lawsuit for $5.8 million after a group of about 7,500 interns sued the company for paying them less than minimum wage.

Shortly after the settlement, the company released an internal memo, acquired by online news site Fashionista, that read in part:

“While we continue to believe the internships that were offered at Condé Nast provided experiences that were among the best in the media business, we determined that settling the lawsuit is the right business decision for Condé Nast.”

Therein lies a problem. Internships are better than ever. Interns are no longer taking coffee orders and sorting mail; they’re making real contributions to companies by designing promotional materials, running social media accounts, writing news copy, assisting with research and a number of other meaningful tasks. Many companies, Condé Nast included, pride themselves on robust internships that provide practical, on-the-job experience. I’ve walked away from both of my college internships with substantial clips and experience that will help my career.

But compensation has not changed to reflect this change in workload. According to a 2016 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, intern pay hasn’t budged in years.

“Overall, the average hourly wage to interns at the bachelor’s degree level have remained virtually unchanged over the past seven years,” the study read. “In fact, when adjusted for inflation, current interns actually make less than their 2010 counterparts.”

The data varies by major. Computer science, economics and engineering interns receive, on average, higher compensation than social science, education and communications interns.

The disparity between pay and efforts makes it extremely difficult to accept and complete internships during and beyond college. This past summer, I worked 40 hours a week as a staff writer for a media company and made little more than minimum wage. Even while renting half a bedroom, using public transit and rationing out weeks worth of peanut butter, I struggled to make ends meet for a few months without help from my parents.

Not all students have that safety net, and a paycheck that doesn’t even pay the bills creates a serious barrier to entry for students who come from low income backgrounds or who otherwise don’t have supplemental income.

Many companies have been working, at least superficially, to diversify staff. But students of color are far more likely to be forced to turn down internship opportunities due to insufficient pay.

As evidenced by me, there are students who are willing to accept low, and even no, pay to work 40 hours a week because they know they can rely on outside support. Brooking’s Senior Research Assistant Joanna Venator calls this phenomenon “the glass floor.”

“One way in which affluent parents protect their children from falling is by using personal or professional connections to arrange job or internship opportunities, but there are less visible forms of protection, such as paying the summer living costs that make an unpaid internship feasible,” Venator wrote in a blog post. “This is not meritocracy: it is opportunity hoarding.”

To add fuel to fire, the costs of living in the United States intern capitals – New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Fransisco – are far higher than what most low- and middle-income students can afford.

Some companies are taking steps to amend this pay gap. Certain internships will cover relocation expenses, pay for transportation or subsidize living expenses. The Piper Center offers stipends for students who accept underpaid or unpaid internships. But even then, such options are few and far between.

So, Condé Nast and companies across the country, if your intern is doing the work of a 9-to-5 employee, you better pay them like one.

Emma Whitford ’18 (whitfo1@stolaf.edu) is from Middleton, Wis. She majors in political science. 

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