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Unpaid internships have been a hot-button issue for a while now, with lawsuits both in and outside the fashion industry signaling a shift in practices. In particular, the suit filed against Condé Nast has been unprecedented on many levels. First, it caused the publishing giant to shut down its internship program. Second, it came to a settlement that resulted in a potential payout for interns dating back to 2007, with payments ranging from $700 to $1900.
Someone decided this money was owed to me. So why do I feel bad about taking it?
I was a Condé Nast intern during that time period, and I qualify to receive around $1250. For most, accepting the money is a no-brainer. But for me, it's a straight-up moral dilemma. Someone decided this money was owed to me. So why do I feel bad about taking it?
In the spring of 2013, I was an editorial intern at Details. I transcribed interviews, researched for stories, sorted mail and the like. It wasn't one of those coffee-fetching internships you hear about, though once I did spend the day going to every grocery story in Manhattan, trying to track down a bottle of Kiwi Cherimoya Sobe Lifewater. (For the record, I didn't actually have to do it. I was just trying to be an Emily Weiss-style Super Intern. Btw, that flavor is only sold in New Jersey, in case you should ever need one.) Overall it was a wonderful experience, and a great foray into the tough-to-break-into fashion industry.
But should I have been paid for it?
Let's get something out of the way right now: I had no expectations of getting paid. When I made the decision to attend college in New York City, I did so for the internship opportunities. I'd read the horror stories about long hours with no pay, but I felt that paying my dues was a necessary step towards making a career for myself in the magazine industry. I knew it would be expensive, but I factored it into the cost of my education.
At Details, my supervisor emphasized that the internship was unpaid during the interview process; I even signed paperwork reinforcing this before I could begin. While we're on the topic of legal rights, the US Fair Labor Standards Act essentially says that if an internship is to be unpaid, there should be an educational component to it and it should be to the benefit of the intern. I learned so much during my time at Details, both indirectly from the day-to-day work and also through a speaker series, required contact with my supervisor, and other built-in measures ensuring interns got something out of the program.
Let's get something out of the way right now: I had no expectations of getting paid.
Plus, there were tons of other perks. The free corner? Yes please. Imagine all the books, swag, hair products and condoms one could need. Seriously, to this day I have not needed to buy shampoo. Hair on fleek and safe sex? Priceless.
And then there was the fact that I loved every minute of it. All I've ever wanted to do was work at a magazine, and I felt incredibly grateful at the opportunity. In fact, I distinctly recall saying to myself I would be the editor-in-chief for free, because I loved it so much. (However, if any Condé Nast higher ups are reading this, real talk, I'm gonna need a salary.)
In the end, you can't put a monetary value on what I walked away with. So there's no way I'm gonna take the money. Right? Right.
But obviously not everyone had such a great internship experience. What about my fellow interns who didn't have a peachy time? Should I take the money in solidarity? Interns gotta stick together, no?
In my quest for answers to the this moral dilemma, I spoke with a former WWD intern who asked to remain anonymous. An intern during summer 2008, her experience was the complete opposite of mine. Her supervisor left shortly after her internship began and she—along with a temp—had to step into her shoes and report directly to a senior editor. "Every day I went to the toilets and cried. I was basically doing the work of an assistant but wasn't getting paid for it. It was very frustrating being in a position that I wasn't prepared for, while making no money. That thousand dollars would have made things a whole lot easier back then."
The Blacklist might be a wonderful TV program, but actually being on one? Not about that life.
Now a freelancer, she risks sullying her reputation should she take the money. "What if I can't submit to a Condé publication now?" The Blacklist might be a wonderful TV program, but actually being on one? Not about that life. Maybe I won't take accept the $1250 after all.
But it's a lot of money. I could my pay my rent with that. I mean from a purely economic standpoint, when someone offers to pay your rent for a month, do you ponder the pros and cons or do you just tell them how to make out the check?
There's also bigger-picture question here. Do I believe unpaid internships should be legal? I'm going to perfectly honest with you: When I first heard about the lawsuit, I was pissed off. I was preparing to reach out to contacts about doing another Condé internship, and just like that the entire program was gone. Who were these ungrateful idiots who not only ruined everything for younger students, but made it so made much harder for them to get an internship anywhere else because hello, Condé Nast publishes all the magazines! (Okay, I ended up at a Hearst publication instead, so clearly there are other magazine publishers in New York, but the shutdown definitely made an already-tough competition a lot worse.) It'd be a little hypocritical for me to profit off something I was so vehemently opposed to.
Plus, the more people that participate in the settlement, the smaller the actual payout becomes, so that would just be a bitch move. (When did I become such a moral person?) If I knew I what I was getting into, then other interns should've known as well. But that's the thing. Maybe I was so obsessed with getting into the fashion industry that I didn't realize I should be standing up for myself. Maybe those other interns were the brave ones, while I was just blindly going along with the status quo.
As I reached the end of my college career, my level of brokeness, good hair nonwithstanding, was just not cute anymore and I had to find a way to get paid. I was fortunate enough to land a paid internship (full disclosure: at this publication) where I was able to work hands on, while still learning, plus I was able to afford to buy clothes every once in a while instead of just packing them up. Paid internships are the way! Enough is enough: I'm taking the money.
Maybe I was so obsessed with getting into the fashion industry that I didn't realize I should be standing up for myself.
But not so fast. Before that, I had a different paid internship that just, well, didn't work out. I'm really trying my hardest to be diplomatic, because, you know, references and stuff, but it was terrible. There was no structure, my supervisors didn't know how to utilize an intern, and I felt like there should've just been a full-time person there instead of me. While I was able to take some things away, I definitely didn't get out of it what I wanted, or frankly needed. Of all my internships, it was probably my worst experience. I felt like the intern from WWD, emotionally wrecked, except in my case it was for just a smidgen above minimum wage. If we're trying to put a dollar amount to work performed, the money just was not worth it.
And I say that as someone who's made it to the other side! Not long after graduation, (and on the same day I was contacted about the settlement) I landed a full-time job at a magazine. How's that for for perspective? This is why I moved to New York, why I took all those unpaid internships—not so that I could make a small stipend at yet another temporary job, but so that I could build a career. After all this talk about getting paid. all of my hard work has finally "paid" off. I can't speak for all interns out there, but I know 1000% that all of my uncompensated work was worth it in the end, and if I could go back and make changes, I wouldn't do anything differently.
Which, in the end, is how I'm solving my ethical dilemma. I wouldn't take a single dollar for my time at Details, so I can't take 1250 of them now.
(Then again, $1250 is a lot of money. I officially have until June 16 to decide. I might change my mind by then.)