1 Don't Be Cheeky About Unpaid Labor, NYT, Be Angry | The Billfold

Don’t Be Cheeky About Unpaid Labor, NYT, Be Angry

“The No Limits Job,” written by Teddy Wayne, appeared in Sunday’s New York Times. The piece opens with a reference to a Taylor Swift lyric, and tells the stories of four women in creative industries long hours for little or no pay. The piece appeared in the Style section.

And it shouldn’t have. This is not a trend story. This is a news story. This piece shouldn’t be cheeky. It should be angry. These women are not outliers. This is not an anomaly. This is how it is now, and it’s sad and terrible and infuriating.

Here’s an anecdote from the piece:

On her last day at one job, her 75-year-old supervisor asked her to help move some heavy things in her house. In her garage, the supervisor opened a door from which issued a blinding stream of light.

“It was a huge room filled with her own field of marijuana plants,” Ms. Schiller said. “She conscripted me for no pay to harvest it overnight. She makes $35,000 per crop and it goes straight to her retirement account.”

The intern’s payment the next morning: a breakfast burrito.

That is actually funny. It’s absurd! But it’s also an intern being made to do illegal work for long hours and no pay. As Josh Eidelson would say, “That’s a labor story.” So why is it in the Style section?


26 Comments / Post A Comment

Megano! (#124)

Ummm hello intern, blackmail!!! I mean, I would never blackmail someone >.>

editrickster (#279)

I really, really appreciate how the Billfold covers labor stories. It’s an important aspect of finance that doesn’t get nearly enough mention in other media.

E$ (#1,636)

That piece really owed us an explanation on how this intern was “conscripted” into something illegal. Could she not just call the cops?

City_Dater (#565)


I think that boss and intern are in a state where it is legal to grow weed for medical purposes, and the jerk boss was no doubt selling it to a dispensery.

However, having an intern work all night for free on your property doing labor that has nothing to do with his/her internship really ought to be illegal.

@City_Dater It is illegal. That’s what’s illegal about it, not the marijuana part.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@E$ Yes, and even if the marijuana WAS illegal, I think there would be a real debate for a lot of people about calling the cops. You’ve put in tons of long weeks working for this person in hopes that their reference and the experience gets you a job someday. Do you really want to call the cops on that reference/networking figure?

Not saying it is right, but it can be hard. It’s because of the power dynamic that people agree to work without pay for forever in the first place.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

I’m confused as to why 20-24 year olds are expected to work fewer hours than “25 and up” year-olds? The article sounded disapproving that they “only” work 2.1 hours LESS than everyone else. Um, yeah, everyone with the same job works the same hours.

@WaityKatie In most countries it’s expected that people who are in some form of higher education/training are not also working full-time jobs.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@stuffisthings Were the people in the article students? I thought it said they were comparing full-time workers to other full-time workers.

@WaityKatie I only had a chance to skim the article, but you would expect that overall, as a group, 20-24 year olds who work work would work significantly less than 25+ people because a significant proportion are in school or training. The fact that it’s “only” 2.1 hours less is therefore somewhat surprising. The BLS table they link to: http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat22.htm does not distinguish students with part time jobs or internships from non-students working full-time jobs.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@stuffisthings If it’s comparing part-time workers to full-time workers, that…doesn’t even make any sense to me at all. How can you compare those things? Are they saying the part timers work only 2.1 hours less than the full-timers? Because in that case that actually is shocking.

@WaityKatie No it’s just talking about all employed people, whether they are part time, full time, working multiple jobs, etc. You would expect a full time, 9-to-5 employee to work about 2,000 hours a year but the OECD average hours actually worked per worker is about 1,800 (a little under 34 hours per week), with poorer countries like Korea, Mexico, and Greece working well over 2,000 and richer countries like Germany and France working more like 1,500 (the US average is 1,836, or about 35.3 hours per week per worker).

Breaking that down further by age, you would expect the number to be much lower for younger people, because they are more likely to work part-time jobs.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

I don’t know, man. Yes, these people are clearly being exploited. On the other hand, they’re volunteering for the exploitation because they really really want to break into “glamour industries.” There’s plenty of “boring desk jobs” that don’t require these insane hours for no pay (might still be low pay, but not as low/nonexistent as the pay detailed here), but I’m guessing the subjects here would be the types to swan around declaring that they’ll NEVER be chained to a DESK like their PARENTS and they NEED to do something CREATIVE with VARIETY and EXCITEMENT. Which is fine, but…if that’s the deal you signed up for, that’s kind of the deal.

City_Dater (#565)


However, the alleged point of a unpaid internship is that an intern is learning about the industry, building experience and connections, possibly getting college credit, heavily supervised/mentored and not taking a paying job away from a qualified adult. Way too many of these “interns” are either doing work that should come with an actual salary, or being conscripted into doing stuff that has nothing to do with learning about their chosen field.
It’s exploitation and it’s wrong, no matter how eager the participants. And given the current unemployment rate, I’m guessing there aren’t as many “boring desk jobs” some of these young people could be doing instead as you think.

Mae (#1,769)

@WaityKatie I understand where you’re coming from (and after reading articles like this I am glad that I am not trying to break into any “glamour industries”), but: people working long hours with no or little pay is still a labor rights issue. Just because they *could* be doing something else doesn’t mean they aren’t being exploited at their current jobs. I mean, we could play this game all day, because most exploited workers in this country are not actually being forced to work their jobs. That doesn’t mean their exploitation is trivial.

Also, I think it’s pretty clear that the kind of exploitation experienced by young workers in publishing and media may be different in degree from what other workers experience, but it’s not different in kind. People in these industries know they have a glut of experienced workers, and they take advantage of it. So do people in many, many other industries. People (especially young ones) in “boring desk jobs” are facing a shitty labor market with falling wages, longer hours, and lack of job security too.

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@WaityKatie I actually was a little annoyed that the article made it sound like this only goes on in the creative industry. I’ve had three unpaid internships: one at a non-profit, one for local government, and a third for a private engineering company.

This is the new norm, and it doesn’t get much better once you are working in many jobs (even of the “boring desk” variety). I saw an article the other day about company layoffs even though many of the places made profits – they said they could do it because of “increased productivity”, which I think for a lot of people means “I’m going to make all of my exempt employees work 70 hours a week”.

Safari (#3,209)

@WaityKatie That isn’t at all true though, plenty of “boring” jobs expect and get a steady stream of unpaid interns too. Internships are increasingly a mandatory step to getting a bachelor’s degree in all fields, and as The Billfold has often reported, the overwhelming majority of jobs are filled through personal connections, connections the average twentysomething only has a hope of obtaining through interning, volunteering, or other unpaid work. It’s a “choice” only insofar as you think being employed at all is a “choice.”

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@Safari I agree with all this. I wish the article had had a wider focus, because it’s true that almost all entry-level jobs have the same overwork/underpay problems, but the only ones the media ever talks about are the glamour industry jobs. I agree that the whole concept of unpaid internships is a huge problem, and I would be happy if ALL internships were paid, they should be paid, unless the internship literally consists of just shadowing someone and taking notes. If you’re contributing any work at all to the organization, you should be paid! I think these issues came out much better in the comments to the NYT article than in the actual article, sadly.

I just think that articles like this one make it too easy to dismiss this problem as a problem that upper middle class kids choose to have because they want fancy jobs, when it’s actually a problem that all people who work have.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@City_Dater I’m actually not as clueless as you might think, I am well aware of the current shite state of the labor market, thanks.

The dense wall of cognitive dissonance required for a rich Style section reader to glide through Manhattan firm in their belief that all is right with the world, w/r/t money and work, cannot be pierced by the lowly words of a mere reporter.

BillfoldMonkey (#1,754)

“So why is it in the Style section?” That’s rhetorical, right? In case it’s not, the answer is: it’s about ladies. Ladies are style, not news.

Weasley (#1,419)


Ugh that’s the most disturbingly spot on comment I’ve ever read.

pissy elliott (#844)

@BillfoldMonkey So much of why we accept this kind of treatment of “glamour industry”/culture industry employees is because they’re a kind of pink-collar ghetto of care workers for the egos of the money people or the artists themselves. Laura Miller said it about book publishing (and better than me), but it applies pretty widely: http://www.salon.com/2010/05/05/men_don_t_read/

When you think that people deserve to be treated shittily because they’re in a “glamour job,” think about how badly they would be treated doing the same kind of administrative, “caring” work for less glamour.

@pissy elliott Even more sick is the fact that nonprofits/NGOs are considered one of the “glamour industries.”

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