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Goodman: Interns should be rewarded with fair pay

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Goodman: Interns should be rewarded with fair pay

Meredith Goodman, Summer Columnist

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While working at my internship this summer, I have been paying more attention than usual to the ongoing debate over unpaid internships. Last month, a judge in Manhattan ruled that Fox Searchlight Studios should have paid two interns on the set of “Black Swan” because they performed job functions similar to those of regular employees. Judge William Pauley said, “Searchlight received the benefits of their unpaid work, which otherwise would have required paid employees.”

I have to question, though, part of the criteria that the Department of Labor uses to define which internships can be unpaid, which the judge cited in the lawsuit. The last of the six criteria states that “the intern’s work must not displace that of regular employees.”

I have a problem with how an intern’s work is defined. Instead of looking at how an intern could displace the work of regular employees, we should define an intern’s work by how it adds value. By doing tasks that would normally take up the time of regular employees, interns add value to the company by allowing regular employees to do more advanced work. This uses the principle of opportunity costs that I’ve heard about over and over again in my classes as an economics major, and it would justify payment for most current interns.

In the example of Fox Searchlight Studios, interns took over menial tasks such as taking lunch orders, answering phones, arranging other employees’ travel plans, tracking purchase orders, taking out the trash and assembling office furniture, according to the lawsuit. Because the interns took over these chores, workers on set could focus on their own responsibilities, such as catering, operating cameras and collaborating with the directors and producers.

Though the interns’ menial tasks might not seem to have added value, they were necessary jobs that needed to be performed by some member of the crew. And if Fox Searchlight Studios could hire a secretary to perform all of these administrative tasks, then it could certainly pay interns at least minimum wage to complete them.

My friends and classmates have done serious work at their internships without pay. They have reported breaking news, gathered and analyzed data, and created educational programs for free. Two classmates in my Chicago Field Studies course revealed that their work had been used in client presentations, but they were still unpaid. All of these tasks clearly add value to the companies, and interns should be compensated for them.

I am fortunate that I am being paid in my internship. An estimated half of students who hold internships are not paid, according to Intern Bridge, a college consulting and research firm. Whether college students are answering phones, programming computers or supporting other employees in an administrative role, they should be rewarded for adding value to a company with fair monetary compensation.

Meredith Goodman is a rising Weinberg junior. She can be reached at meredithgoodman2015@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, leave a comment or send a letter to the editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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