Infamous interns

For a long time now, unpaid internships have acted as a pseudo rite of passage for new entrants to various fields. First to mind where this practice is normal are fashion houses and the communications industry — magazines, news outlets, PR firms and, to bring things close to home for yours truly, advertising agencies. Such apprenticeships have acted as a more-or-less testing ground: are these trainees passionate about this line of work, or do they in their heart-of-hearts wish to be somewhere else?

As with many others things, Hollywood has sent the intern zeitgeist into a tailspin. A landmark case dealing with interns suing a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox recently met the gavel to land on the side of employees. The federal court ruled that having unpaid interns complete tasks similar to other paid workers violated the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act. This has led to an armada of class action suits launched against other companies partaking in this “unpaid apprenticeship” trend, including Conde Nast, Gawker, Hearst and Warner Music Group Corp.

This established practice (estimated as affecting more than a million U.S. positions) is under fire, and the hospitality industry is no exclusion. Even though right now it’s some of the other “glamorous” industries that are getting hit, hotels may be next on the chopping block, so preventive measures must be addressed.

If you hire interns, you must now be prepared to pay for their time (that is, at minimum wage) or at least structure the nature of their work so that it is not the same as other paid workers. The key here is that an apprenticeship must be structured to immediately benefit the intern, not necessarily the employer.

If you’re accustomed to having your bottom-rung staffers pick up the morning coffee and fondle the file cabinet all day, you better be prepared to ante up. But, if you are able to devise tasks that are distinct from that given to your payroll-earning team, then you may just be able to continue down the unpaid internship path without the looming shadows of hungry attorneys.

This may require creativity about job roles. Perhaps there are a few select projects on your to-do list that require a dedicated effort from one or two juniors, but don’t fit the criteria of others’ regular job descriptions. I’m thinking along the lines of research and querying studies, not just database analysis. The bottom line: their work has to be meaningful.

Whatever you choose, you may now be obliged to get some legal counsel to ensure it meets these new stipulations. And so I open it to the floor: what ingenuous tasks could you give interns to properly distinguish them from your paid staffers?