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An Oral History of My Illegal Internships

COW Blogs : Kylee Peña's Blog : An Oral History of My Illegal Internships
Whether by necessity or the evolution of a specific kind of culture, internships have emerged as a dominant “foot-in-the-door” for the post production industry. Among those internships, the unpaid variety tend to dominate in a way that is not seen in many other fields such as business and medicine. Sure, unpaid internships aren’t exclusive to post production; however, for some reason we’ve collectively decided that the single biggest way to prove one’s merit is by working in some capacity for free.

It’s almost as if everyone believes that because they suffered the difficulty of doing often humiliating or degrading work for free, everyone else should too.

In our industry, it seems like most people don’t understand the line between legal and illegal internships. The young people trying to get experience and move up the ladder need to know what’s legal, but they can’t really do anything about it. The people who really need to know these guidelines are the hiring managers and producers in charge of the intern experience — the people who can make a difference. It’s not that free work is altogether bad or off limits. It’s sometimes the right move for personal enrichment, donation of time, or just to learn some new skills. The issue is that we aren’t ensuring that up and coming talent are valued, either through being paid minimum wage or guaranteed an valuable educational experience.

I completed three internships while I attended Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis — IUPUI. I graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Arts and Science and a Certificate in Applied Computer Science. I worked nearly full time, lived off-campus, and had parents who were able to give me money for books and fees not covered by loans — who were also available to help me with my living expenses when I really needed it. I currently have $27,723.91 in federal student loan debt, which I deferred for the first few years of my career since my income was too low.


Tired, malnourished, and happy to be done.

Since I was an Indiana resident attending an Indiana school, I was able to get in-state rates with a small scholarship. I chose IUPUI both for cost and for proximity to Indianapolis businesses where I could intern or work. I no longer have records of exactly what I paid from 2005-2009, but the current rates for attendance are about $4,700 per semester in my program. That’s just shy of $37,000 for four years of a full course load, about $255 per credit hour.

I completed three internships while attending IUPUI. Two of them were illegal by today’s standards.

I was and am very lucky and privileged to have been able to have these experiences. Many people are not able to get through the door and in the room at all because they cannot afford to work for free. It was incredibly hard for me to balance all this, but I knew if things really got out of control I had some back-up with my parents bailing me out. As a result of my ability to spend 10-15 hours a week on these internships instead of working for actual money, I was able to stack my resume upon graduation in a way someone with equal skills but less parental support was unable to do.

That made a difference for me, as it does many other privileged people in this industry. As a result, opportunities for employment and career growth for those who had to prioritize other things are limited or removed entirely. Those people are approached with an attitude of “well, I guess they didn’t try hard enough or want it badly enough. I guess they’re just not as good.” (Infuriatingly, the people who proudly boast about the unpaid internships and free work they did when they were young are the first to criticize low or no pay freelance opportunities. Both of these things can devalue the industry in different ways.)

I want to stress that I’m going to discuss my experiences as an intern and a student from my own experience and perspective, using the the US Department of Labor’s 2010 “Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act” fact sheet as a yard stick. Maybe they weren’t illegal back then, but they sure are now. And today is what’s relevant. I want people to see what I was required to do and why it was wrong then and illegal now.

Before I describe my illegal internships, I want to give you some background on what the Department of Labor considers to legal or not. The DOL has a test in six parts which private sector internships must comply with. If the internship fails the test, then the internship is actually non-exempt employment and must be paid minimum wage plus overtime for time in excess of 40 hours in a week.

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

If these conditions are met, then there is no employment arrangement under The Fair Labor Standards Act and no minimum wage or overtime payment is required. The more like an extension of an educational experience the internship is, the more likely it is to be considered a true internship.

A very important distinction in the work interns do: if the skills they’re learning are broadly applicable to other work environments with the primary benefit not being for the employer, that’s okay. On the other hand, if they’re performing productive work for the employer — filing, answering phones, clerical work — then although they may be getting some useful skills for the future, they are not excluded from the FSLA’s minimum wage requirements. If interns are doing productive work that would otherwise be completed by giving additional hours to or hiring an additional employee and are not under the constant and direct supervision of a regular employee of the company in a constant educational environment, they are not an intern.

Let me put it a different way: when you send an intern out to fetch lunch or finish your paperwork, you should be paying them for their time. If they are doing solo work on a deadline a regular employee would have otherwise been assigned to do, you should pay them for their time.

My first illegal internship was in 2007 at a small post house in Indianapolis that no longer exists, so I won’t even mention them by name. I spent about 4 months as an intern, about 12 hours a week. This was the internship I dreamed about when I moved to the city for school. I was able to connect with a real editor who let me shadow him during the internship and beyond. When I was out of school, he got me my first freelance job. We’re still in touch and he was a great and positive force early in my career. I spent time in the edit suite with him and his clients. I learned how to run a room. I also got my first hands-on experience with Avid and was able to fiddle around with it myself. I got introduced to the machine room and saw how patching worked. I went on shoots with real clients. I recut an old project and had a producer give me some feedback.


The post house had won sports Emmys, which I enjoyed holding at the time.

But I also had major complaints with this internship which I brought up with my advisor, largely because the company was beginning to fold up while I was interning there. For the longest time I thought I was being over-dramatic. It wasn’t until the last few years that I really realized this was not only unethical, it is now truly illegal. I would fetch lunch frequently for people who disrespected me and whined when I got them the wrong thing. I was put in charge of making coffee and sending mail, walking to the post office somewhat regularly. I answered phones a lot and ran the front desk on the regular, which was hard because nobody introduced themselves to me. I didn’t have anyone sitting in the Avid suite with me and my book, explaining to me that the software was unstable and crashing and it wasn’t my fault. I was asked to ingest media for a project without supervision and scolded when I did it wrong. I spent weeks upon weeks in a storage room alone re-organizing a sound library and filing paperwork. When people were laid off, I cleaned out their offices. Eventually I started cutting small projects the laid off individuals would have worked on.

By today’s standards, this violates #1, #2, #3 and #4 on the DOL’s lil test. My university would likely argue it was not illegal because they provided the educational structure around it, so the internship was a proper extension of an educational experience they were providing for me. I think if you look hard at the DOL fact sheet and the educational environment that was offered, this argument wouldn’t hold up. IUPUI had what was essentially an “internship class” where you could earn college credit through the internship. The class was online with some light reading and a lot of forum posts about what you did and what you learned. Other than a site visit once during the experience, the university was hands-off. For the privilege of answering phones and writing forum posts to my advisor every day, struggling to describe how that skill would benefit me in life, I paid for three credit hours plus fees. By today’s standards, I would have paid at least $756 to be an unpaid intern.

I was lucky to have this internship. It created opportunities for me and gave me exposure to the kind of environment I needed at that time. It was key to getting my next internship. But it was hard to accomplish and at minimum, morally wrong for the employer and school to put me in this situation. But even so, how many other students were unable to participate in this before the company shut down?

My next internship was a legal unpaid internship at the Indiana State Museum. The museum is a non-profit organization which grants some leeway with internships as volunteer experiences that differ from private sector interns, but it doesn’t really matter. This internship was a true extension of my educational experience largely because I did not give any immediate benefit to the museum and yeah, definitely impeded its operations. I completed this internship for college credit again with IUPUI’s dubious “intern experience” course, but the true value of the experience came from the museum employee I worked with. She gave me real projects to do, offering guidance while also allowing me to work independently. Truthfully she could have finished them better and faster without me. I finished a couple neat audio projects that were featured in the museum (and took weeks longer than they should have) and a couple smaller videos that were featured on the museum’s new YouTube page.







I also got the opportunity to do research for upcoming exhibits’ video work and see how my hands-on experience would directly apply to months of public enjoyment. And I was given the museum’s resources and equipment to explore independently and create whatever I wanted. The experience was entirely for my benefit and the fact that the museum ended up using any of my work was an unexpected bonus for me. I had context, access, and patience with lots of feedback.

My third internship was by far the worst and most illegal. My senior year of college, I picked up an unpaid internship with an organization called NUVO Newsweekly, an alternative lifestyle magazine in Indianapolis. They wanted video production interns that could go to events to shoot and edit content for their YouTube page, promising that I’d work with a producer and get great experience in corresponding with that producer and learning more about editing while also building my portfolio. It seemed like a great way to build up my reel at the end of my college career, and my friend Katie was also able to get the same internship, so we went for it.


Oh, how great for Katie and me.

And then they threw in: oh yeah, you’re also part of the Street Team so we’ll have you do a little bit of promo stuff while you’re shooting. No big deal, we have a table with copies of NUVO and we direct people to it. Uh, okay.

We were regularly given a list of events happening in the city that we needed to choose to cover, a fixed number of them required per week. If we didn’t go to enough, we got in trouble. The up side to this was we got to see and experience many different sides of the city for free, attending concerts and events we never would have considered before. The downside was that the street team aspect was understated and the educational aspect was overstated.


This seems educational.

We went to our first event at a bar: an incredibly loud, incredibly late concert on a week night when both of us had work or school the next day. Nobody from NUVO greeted us, and I’m not sure anyone else in the leadership we worked with ended up attending. Our first field experience as interns was as two young women alone in a bar with video production equipment and no further direction on what to create. But we did it anyway, and quickly cut together a highlights video. The all-important producer collaboration and educational feedback experience amounted to “wow, great job! Upload it!”

We did more events. Roller derby, art shows, festivals, restaurant reviews, other local concerts. Turned out more content. Got more passive thumbs up. Look, I’ve seen these videos years later. They were fine and good, but they had room for improvement. We were not above guidance, but we WERE creating SEO-friendly, regular video content for free. We were being had.


An example of our perfect, no-notes work.

The likely highlight of the whole intern experience was being assigned to cover the end of Indy Wine Festival. We were told we needed to also break down the NUVO tent, table and materials, load it in the NUVO branded jeep, and drive the jeep back to headquarters. When we arrived, we realized the jeep was parked in the middle of the festival in a huge urban park — and it being the end of the day at a wine festival in June in the midwest, the lawn was littered with people who were passed out. We spent an hour figuring out how to take the tent down, googling to find instructions since none were provided. Then we drove through the lawn of the park, trying not to kill anyone.


What kind of insurance policy does this require?

Yeah. The twenty-two year old unpaid intern drove the enormous branded jeep through a park. A liability for sure, but I’m not certain for whom.

I ended up leaving the internship early, in part because I was unhappy with being used for free labor but also because I had transitioned into a full-time job and couldn’t balance going to night events anymore. My friend held on a little longer, having to actually confront the indignant producer and internship coordinator who felt they were giving us the experience of a lifetime. An internship should be a two-way communication, and instead they took her feedback as insubordination.

This internship violated numbers #2, #3, and #4 — massively #3. We were doing work that needed to be done by paid freelancers, not students and industry newcomers who were desperate for experience. At the very least, we deserved minimum wage and maybe a little more promised guidance, or a completely restructured intern experience.

I don’t know if NUVO still has unpaid interns that violate all these rules in the DOL’s test, but I sure hope not. It was incredibly disappointing to be involved in something that was such an obvious racket, taking advantage of young peoples’ passion and telling them they “get to” visit these places and put their work online.

And when it comes to these two illegal internships, that’s really what I feel: disappointment. For all the translatable skills I gained, I had to give up so much of myself. I was essentially working for no pay during a time in my life when giving up hours was incredibly precious and potentially threatening to my survival. I had to somehow make up ground to keep up on my rent and electric bills and gas at my full-time job. By the time I graduated, I was sick constantly and more exhausted than I’d ever been in my life. And I got far less value for the experience than anyone should.

But I was still able to do it and lucky to have the opportunity. Many don’t have the privilege to make these sacrifices to their physical and financial well-being because they have children, no family support, or some other life circumstance to deal with instead. In an industry with a false narrative of “meritocracy” to rise up, we are not lending everyone the opportunity to demonstrate their skills at the beginning of their careers when important choices are made and experiences are had. Those who think they have risen up only because they were better are dismissing the societal, gender, racial, financial, geographical privilege they were granted. This doesn’t mean they didn’t earn it, and it certainly doesn’t mean they’re not good at what they do and didn’t work hard. But the obstacles they had in their path were not the same as others with less privilege.

I described the total cost of my education -- being enrolled was a prerequisite for these internships -- to give you a sense of the actual dollars invested in this experience. My loan costs don't even begin to address the amounts my parents spent on books, car payments or other necessities they helped me with, or the rent, food, and gas I bought. Was this a good value for the educational experience I received?


Me on the set of a local indie having an amazing time on a frigid day with great people -- not all free work is bad.

I don’t put this forward to denegrate a specific school or business who bought into the internship racket: it’s not like ya’ll invented this mess, and it’s not like it’s an easy systemic fix. But I’m disappointed. I would hope that businesses with a stake in the community would recognize the importance of opening up opportunities for all, and how money and time plays into someone’s ability to do that. I would really hope that a school built on positive values and life experience would choose to advocate for paid internships — or ya know, just job placement in general — in lieu of pushing students into the system.

And I would really really hope that those people in the industry that benefitted from internships, either from gaining skills or getting a job, would recognize that no matter how well they managed to do, it would have been a better, more equal educational experience if they hadn’t been taken advantage of for free work. And by extension, that they would advocate for better, more equal educational opportunities for those coming up behind them instead of enforcing the status quo as a matter of paying ones’ dues.

This industry is hard, and that’s fine. If it were easy, everyone one do it and no one would pay for it. I don’t need it to be easier. But why can’t we make it just a little bit more accessible for the next generation, and make the next generation’s industry a little more inclusive as a result?


Posted by: Kylee Peña on Jul 28, 2017 at 2:02:55 am internships, illegal, legal, university



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