I can't remember if I've written about this before or not, but the New York Times has another article complaining about how unpaid internships are exploitative and evil. The writer calls on the Labor Department to crack down on enforcement of labor laws on these. The article doesn't consider whether such a crackdown would lead firms to offer fewer internships, leaving everyone worse off. Businesses' resources are not infinitely elastic, of course, and it's hard for even the smartest and most conscientious of interns to create much value for their employers. They're not there for very long; I've certainly had internships in which I felt like I'd barely figured out where the coffee maker and the copy machines were when it was time to leave.
Side note: the article's poster child is the son of two public interest lawyers. Even if each parent is a fairly junior public interest lawyer, it's safe to say that the two together are probably earning about $100,000 a year. If each parent is a senior public interest lawyer -as is likely, given that they have a son in college -- it wouldn't suprise me if their combined earnings are about $200,000. It seems strange that they would not be able to lend their son some money for a summer apartment if it were really important to them.
I'll stay mum for the moment on the question of whether these internships violate labor law, not having had the opportunity to look closely at the relevant statutes. But if they do, the law should be changed, period.
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