Taking Advantage: Why Doesn’t Metro Pay All Its Interns?

oregon-zoo-entrance

Portland area progressives have been the strongest advocates for fair wages. But the area’s regional government, Metro, isn’t walking the talk.

One result? Low-income Oregonians having to choose between a career enhancing internship with Metro and an afternoon job at a Dairy Queen may have little choice if they want to make any money.

That’s because some Metro internships pay zero. Not one thin dime. Not one red cent.

The Oregon Zoo, for example, is offering unpaid internships in:

It’s a good thing Metro is offering internship opportunities, but it is treading on thin ice by not paying interns.

Federal law is clear that most interns should be paid at least the minimum wage plus overtime after 40 hours a week. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), covered and non-exempt individuals who are “suffered or permitted” to work must be compensated for the services they perform for an employer.

In mid-2016, federal District Court Judge William H. Pauley III of New York ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures broke the law when it didn’t pay production interns working on the movie “Black Swan” because they were essentially regular employees. “Searchlight received the benefits of their unpaid work, which otherwise would have required paid employees,” the judge said.

Pauley said unpaid internships should be permitted only in very limited circumstances. He added that whether an intern is receiving college credit for the work matters little in determining whether an intern should be paid.

Pauley’s ruling wasn’t a departure from precedent. There’ve been other cases, too, in which courts have ruled that interns must be paid.

You’d think employers would have learned by now and stopped trying to get free labor from interns, but many persist.

“In some industries, especially media, the unpaid internship is the risk many companies are willing to take,” Ed Reeves, a labor and employment attorney at Stoel Rives LLP, told me. “Less so in other businesses. We counsel against that risk, but not every company asks.”

Some employers that bring on interns without paying them may think it’s enough that they get experience, do some networking and get to hang around the fascinating people who do the “real work.”

But aside from the legal issues, that means students from well-off families can afford to take a career-building unpaid internship, but not the kid from an average family struggling to deal with potentially crippling college loan debt. That perpetuates inequality.

Paid internships tend to pay off more for students too. According to the National Association of Colleges & Employers, graduates who have done paid internships outpace their unpaid peers in job offers and salaries.

Metro says its employees are guided by the shared values of public service, excellence, teamwork, sustainability, innovation and respect.

A little more respect for interns by paying all of them a fair wage would be a good way to prove that.

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