can I get paid?
October 30, 2010 1:42 PM   Subscribe

Legalfilter! My work was taken advantage of - I interned/trained for a small business but wasn't paid for any time. I asked for things to be made right, but was told to shove it. Do I go to court?

Lots of details make this a complicated mess. Check it out:

- Work is very slow here in Oregon, so I chose to take on an unpaid internship for experience and the good resume marks
- At the time I was a student, but left school during my internship
- Receiving credit for my time never worked out, as I found the internship outside of school and my school had a dismal internship program
- Thus, I worked for a few months without any formal agreement for credit or formal agreement as a trainee

As the weeks passed, it became clear that my time was depended upon, and I was more-or-less an employee at this business. I was one of several interns, none paid, all doing work identical to what the paid employees did. Only a few people were paid at the business, and it seems "intern" labor drove the bulk of daily operations.

I asked for pay repeatedly, only to be told maybe "later in the year." Finally, paid work came my way - a few shifts were worked, and suddenly I was removed from the work schedule. I was told my work ethic wasn't satisfactory, and that I wouldn't be getting paid shifts unless I could do more. This, after working 4-5 months for free...

From what I understand, these are the six federal criteria (taken from here) for unpaid work:

- The training given in the internship must be similar to what would be given in an educational setting, or vocational school
- The training should be for the benefit of the trainee
- The trainee's work not replace workers who are regularly paid
- The employer receives no immediate advantage from the trainees' activities, and the employer's operations may actually be impeded on occasion
- At the end of the training, the trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job
- Both the trainee and the employer understand that the trainee is not entitled to wages during the training period.

The work was not a learning experience. I did a lot for this business, easily as much as a paid employee (I have gathered witness statements). Given that I can't be considered a trainee or intern, I believe I am entitled wages.

It boils down to this: while it seems the regulations are on my side, I don't know if I have a leg to stand on in court. Without a formal agreement to do work, I wasn't an "intern" or an employee, just someone helping off the street - hoping to get my foot in the door. I volunteered, but it was a two-way street, they asked for my time and depended on me to show up. Is this a labor abuse and can I win back what is owed? Or have I wasted my time, and given someone a nice chunk of free work?

Go mefi! And thanks!
posted by roygbv to Law & Government (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
roygbv: The work was not a learning experience. I did a lot for this business, easily as much as a paid employee

That is a learning experience.

I'm sorry, I know you're frustrated but you understood throughout you were not entitled to wages. You're still not entitled to wages for those hours; in other words you are not owed anything. You were free to leave at any time and it seems to me you were essentially volunteering for a commercial organisation.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:03 PM on October 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Have you spoken to any sort of lawyer, legal aid office, state agency, etc.? Laws aside, seems like there's usually low- or no-cost advice about how best to pursue these sorts of things.

Assuming you can document the fact that you worked there, if it's not possible to get advice from those sorts of people, a good first step might be to write the "employer" via registered, return-receipt mail and tell them you expect compensation (providing a figure), that you will pursue it legally if that's what it takes, that you have looked into it and are confident that you are standing on solid legal ground.

In not quite so many words: "Let's not make this a fight, but I will if I have to so how's 'bout giving me ___ and we're done with it?"
posted by ambient2 at 2:04 PM on October 30, 2010

I'm going to answer this from the viewpoint of someone in the design field where this often happens. I am not a lawyer etc.

Your in a sticky situation, and you should be aware that there is not much that can be done. Did they pay you for the shifts when you were a "paid employee" rather than an unpaid worker? That seems to be the only place where you can feasibly argue for wages. As for the other time, while they most likely violated federal standards (almost every unpaid job does), since there was no agreed payment in the first place you will likely not receive compensation (you could possibly get them in trouble though, if you so desired). Also even more dangerous, it sounds like you never had any sort of agreement in the first place, which makes you a volunteer, not a trainee. If your field has a union, that's your best avenue. Even if you aren't part of it, they can answer your questions.

This kind of thing happens extremely often in design fields and young people often end up in your situation. The problem is that if you report them: you probably still wont get paid, you might or might not get them in trouble, and you might or might not get your name spread around as a troublemaker or whistleblower which might kill your career in that city. It's an intractable problem that's been around for a long long time and I've never seen realistic steps taken to fix it.
posted by tmthyrss at 2:06 PM on October 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

The only right of compensation I believe you have is the ability to now badmouth the company that gave you an internship. (Which I don't really recommend, except in rare cases.) Sorry; sounds terrible. (I am not a lawyer. I know absolutely nothing about Oregon's laws.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 2:07 PM on October 30, 2010

I'm not sure what you have legally, but before you file any sort of complaint, it's worth considering if you ever want to use this company as a reference.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:09 PM on October 30, 2010

I worked for a few months without any formal agreement for credit or formal agreement as a trainee

IAMNYL, but you do not have a case. you were neither contracted to receive remuneration nor were you contracted to stay. as DarlingBri said, you were to free to leave at any point and yet you stayed. and like her, i will also point out that yes, this was a learning experience.
posted by violetk at 2:11 PM on October 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

I would refer back to the contract you had regarding the "internship" and/or "employment"..

You DO have a document that outlines expectations, duties, and salary, if any? Right? Because that's what you'll need to take them to court.
posted by HuronBob at 2:13 PM on October 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Illegal compensation arrangements don't magically become legal if employees agree to them. You may not be entitled to anything, but only a lawyer can tell you. Go get a free consultation.
posted by stuart_s at 2:14 PM on October 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

Great answers so far. Thanks guys! I feared I might be up shit creek... I don't know if I'll raise any trouble for this business, tmthyrss is right about this happening with a design firm. I don't need to wreck my reputation around town.

Life lessons learned, no more free work for me. Of course, being told my ethic wasn't up to snuff led to a falling out and now there is zero resume material. The guy running the show just won't hear it, I worked through some hard times for him and get jack in return. Le sigh.
posted by roygbv at 2:16 PM on October 30, 2010

DarlingBri: That's not really how the law works in the US (IANAL, this is not legal advice, etc...). Commercial businesses aren't allowed to have volunteers by and large. They can have legitimate interns, but the Fair Labor Standards Act requires that the program meet the criteria the OP mentioned (see this article for more). State wage and hour laws also usually have something to say about the subject. The idea here is that unpaid labor is coercive (at its greatest extreme, it's slavery, not that the OP was by any means a slave, and diminishes the concept of a minimum wage, so it's not allowed unless it meets guidelines for a legitimate educational experience.

Without these laws, a business could easily say to prospective employees "ok, work for 2 weeks for free while you learn the ropes and then we'll pay you if we think you're good enough" and many people would accept this arrangement because the market is tough even though this practice is coercive. The law says employees must be paid for the time they work, with very few exceptions.
posted by zachlipton at 2:22 PM on October 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Responses about "this was a learning experience," while lulzy, are totally off-base. You don't have to be a lawyer to know that the law means "learning a new skill," not "learning what it's like to be fucked over by cheapskates."

That said, things like this are notoriously difficult to prove. "Sending the intern to get coffee" is proverbial for a reason. But, I also wouldn't be too scared of the "you'll never work in this town again" syndrome. If this company does this to multiple people on a regular basis, other people already know their reputation. The thing you would most likely hurt is your ability to get more unpaid indentured servitude "work."
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:31 PM on October 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Zachlipton: that's what I thought - and I did feel like a prospective employee. I spent the time trying to convince them I was worth paying, which eventually they did for a week. Then I was sent away. Seems like a coercive practice, indeed.
posted by roygbv at 2:31 PM on October 30, 2010

Also, I plan to seek legal counsel first thing Monday.
posted by roygbv at 2:32 PM on October 30, 2010

Take it from the federal level to the state -- it's worth it to look into filing a wage claim through BOLI. If you meet the criteria there will be a hearing.
posted by melissa may at 2:36 PM on October 30, 2010

Also, I suggest looking at the claim form before doing anything else, because you can't use it if you engage private counsel. Good luck!
posted by melissa may at 2:39 PM on October 30, 2010

Responses about "this was a learning experience," while lulzy, are totally off-base. You don't have to be a lawyer to know that the law means "learning a new skill," not "learning what it's like to be fucked over by cheapskates."

that was not how i meant that this was a learning experience. the OP did work for the company. he was a student and necessarily learned how a design studio operated. that is the implicit experience of an internship. design interns are often given the work of regular employees, tho with much more guidance. if the OP felt the scope of the work was changing, he should have asked for a formal contract (actually, he should have asked for one before commencing the "internship").

also, OP, i am correct in assuming you are in portland? do not underestimate how small the design community in this town is. it is very much about who you know and who you have worked with/for. if what you claim is true and if the studio has done this to other people, than they will have a reputation. conversely, you will also gain a reputation for your actions and if people deem them as objectionable to you being hired, it will be even more difficult for you in the future to find employment, outside of bad economy itself. it sucks, but there it is.
posted by violetk at 3:01 PM on October 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

IAAL IANYL. Whether you learned anything or not tends not to be the main issue in these cases. What's important is this factor "The employer receives no immediate advantage from the trainees' activities, and the employer's operations may actually be impeded on occasion"

Was the work you did for real clients? Did the company get paid for work you did? If so they violated labor laws and can get fined. You might also be able to get lost wages based on a prevailing wage for that work in the area. I'm not sure how that part works in OR, so I couldn't say either way if you would get wages. It's worth talking to someone.

A lot of film companies in LA have unpaid interns. The formal unpaid interns through large studios tend to do things like, script reading and editing. But they do it on scripts that have already been rejected, so that the company is not actually benefiting from the work the unpaid intern does.

Just because a lot of industries use unpaid interns, doesn't make it legal, and it doesn't make it right. A lot of people don't report it, since they don't want to ruin their chances in the industry, but if more people reported it, and places started getting in trouble, maybe the companies would knock it off and actually pay people for their time. Or maybe they would start complying with the law and provide actual internships instead of exploiting students in exchange for free work.

Talk to a lawyer. You have been treated unfairly and possibly illegally.
posted by Arbac at 3:41 PM on October 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Aside the legal question, which I'm not in any way qualified to answer:

What bugs me about your question is that they told you it was about your work habits. Why would they do that, when it would be just as easy to say they didn't really want to hire another paid employee?

Check--just check, I'm not accusing--that story's plausibility. Is it possible that you were better than zero, but not great? That is, while they were grateful for whatever help you gave them, you weren't exactly up to what they would consider paying for.

Because I'm not sure what they get out of that story above a simple "I'm afraid that won't be possible" to your request for a paid position.
posted by ctmf at 6:32 PM on October 30, 2010

Do you think you did a good job...or do they have good reason to not invite you to come on board? That seems an important question. Ad agencies and design firms have operated like this forever (unpaid internships). It sucks, but it is standard. They know that there are people lined up wanting any job...even in good economic times. I doubt that you will get anywhere with your beef...but if you do, understand you likely won't be working for another design firm in PDX.
posted by naplesyellow at 7:54 PM on October 30, 2010

DarlingBri isn't quite right, as Zachlipton's pointed out, unless this is a non-profit we're talking about. Under Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations, you cannot volunteer your services to a private, for-profit company. Obviously, there are a few, very limited exceptions - hospital volunteers who also happen to be nurses at the hospital, for example. By and large, though, you simply can't just work for free, even if you'd offered to, at a for-profit company.

IANAL, but if I were you I'd speak to one and look into filing a claim for unpaid wages.
posted by pecanpies at 8:32 PM on October 30, 2010

Seconding the recommendation to contract BOLI. They made news a few months ago going after companies for intern related wage violations
posted by vespabelle at 9:39 PM on October 30, 2010

Should I really worry about damaging my reputation? If I'm in the right, will this guy really badmouth me out of future work? Seems like a lame community to work for, if that's the case. Since I left his place, I've found an excellent job somewhere else, so it doesn't bother me either way.
posted by roygbv at 9:57 PM on October 30, 2010

This is the way of the world in the design industry, and, frankly, it's disgusting. But a lot of now successful designers had to do their turn at slave labor and use that as justification for running their own pool of slaves. Good luck changing the system. (Incidentally, in my own circle of design colleagues, I've never heard of an intern being hired by the company offering the internship.)

(I can't tell you how many internet startup business planning meetings I've sat in, by the way, where the answer to "how are we going to get [insert boring, unskilled task] done?" was "we'll just get a bunch of interns.")

As for your reputation, if you're good, I don't think it matters. If you're just OK or not good, it probably does, but you'd be unlikely to be hired anyway.
posted by maxwelton at 12:42 AM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seems like a lame community to work for, if that's the case.

It's not that it's lame; it's that it's small, and it produces popular consumer items with people's names and reputations attached. You will find similar uncomfortable, unethical, and incestuous situations in, say, modern visual effects work, video game development, animation, etc. etc.

You can stay in these fields and find that sort of dealing distasteful, but you will need to exercise a lot of tact, maintain very firm principles about your rate and what you will do to get it, and grimace your way through those days when that person from your last gig that you thought you'd never see again suddenly moves into the office down the hall at your new gig.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 5:49 AM on October 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

You are not up shit creek. You have to realize that as soon as someone complains about a legit concern at work, there are people who come back with "well its a learning experience" or "welcome to the real world" type of remarks.

Not only are they counterproductive, but they uphold a view that workers have no rights in the workplace.

Now, it sucks that you worked there for 4-5 months and they didn't pay you for it. You had agreed to it in advance...and well...thats that.

Regarding the paid shifts.

So you're telling me that the company knew you in a professional capacity for 4-5 months.
It hired you after that period, based on your previous performance.
Shortly after you did the paid work, they pulled the pay.
You went back to being unpaid.

Seems to me that they are trying to get for free what they should NOW be paying for. GET A LAWYER.

As for your "reputation" being damaged...

You worked for these people for 4-5 months.
They paid you when they realized you were valuable.
They stopped paying you when they realized it might work.
To justify stopping your pay, they basically said you are NOT a hard worker.

Do you really think they give a shit about you? They just attacked your reputation to save a buck. Sucking their cock and working for free isn't going to get you an honest assessment from them and you need to realize that. may want to contact the Wage and Hour division at the Dep of Labor. Not paying you because you aren't "productive enough" seems shady.

I use "shady" because I know its illegal, but I can't cite it. Lawyers should be able to do that for you.

Good luck, and fuck the haters.
posted by hal_c_on at 8:01 AM on October 31, 2010

Oh...and just so you know...VERY VERY VERY few employment disputes go the "court". Lawyers are pretty good at working together so they aren't in front of a judge.
posted by hal_c_on at 8:02 AM on October 31, 2010

« Older Should I, and how do I, say "no" to my unstable...   |   iPod replacement halp Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.