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Artist Rights

Most Unpaid Internships Are Illegal


A piece about internships in yesterday’s New York Times has been making the rounds, and it’s worth a peek for all animation students. It explains how most internships violate federal law and the government is beginning to crack down on employers who take advantage of free labor. Unpaid internships in New York’s non-union animation scene are particularly notorious; most studios (big and small) have at least a couple interns and certain ones have been known to employ generous numbers of unpaid interns simultaneously. No wonder then that the Times article calls out a local animation studio:

At Little Airplane, a Manhattan children’s film company, an N.Y.U. student who hoped to work in animation during her unpaid internship said she was instead assigned to the facilities department and ordered to wipe the door handles each day to minimize the spread of swine flu. Tone Thyne, a senior producer at Little Airplane, said its internships were usually highly educational and often led to good jobs.

From an economic viewpoint, unpaid interns make perfect sense for companies, but from an ethical viewpoint, it’s questionable behavior (and from the government’s point of view, it’s illegal). When I was looking to hire a personal assistant, a number of friends and associates advised me to offer the position as an unpaid internship. Despite the appeal of such an idea (who doesn’t like to save money?), I declined and opted to hire an assistant with an hourly wage. I’ve also been on the other side; when I was a kid, I found experience as an unpaid intern. Looking back on it, I regret my youthful naivete. Bottomline: if you’re doing the work, you deserve to be compensated. People like to villainize Walt Disney for paying his employees meager wages in the 1930s, but what they forget is that he paid even the lowliest of the traffic boys, which is more than can be said for many stingy contemporary animation shops that ride on the backs of free labor.

If you’ve got stories, positive or negative, about your experiences with animation internships, please share them with the rest of us. A similar take on internships can be found on the blog of Richard O’Connor, who is a co-owner of Asterisk studio in New York. He writes that at Asterisk, “We pay everybody (unless you’re working for school credit). In part because that’s the law, in part because we’re profiting (in theory) from a worker’s contributions.”