Should internships be paid? Shouldn't even the lowliest intern get at least minimum wage? No, says someone who recently took four internships where he was unpaid. He was richly compensated, he says, in other ways.
In one job he learned how to work the office copier. In another, he got a 30-day Metrocard good for travel on New York City's subway. "I thought, isn't that nice?" says Steve Cohen. "It was more of a surprise to me than if I'd been entitled to it."
From another unpaid gig he got a stapler—albeit one that he had had to buy himself. "I had to buy my own supplies," explains the former intern. "I took the stapler with me, and some grease pencils."
What makes his story different from those of many kids who accept unpaid work is that he's not a kid. Cohen is a middle-aged husband and father of two, a former media executive, and a recent graduate of New York Law School.
When Cohen wrote recently about his experience for the Wall Street Journal, arguing that interns should not get minimum wage, his op-ed piece brought forth a firestorm of comment.
Unpaid internships—their fairness or unfairness—lately have figured in high-profile lawsuits brought by unpaid, disgruntled interns against the rich corporations that used them but didn't even give them car fare.
In December the Supreme Court of New York ordered television host Charlie Rose's production company to pay up to $250,000 to settle a class-action suit brought by former interns who argued that, although they had agreed to work for free, they should have been paid.
Rose and his company say in the settlement agreement that they do not admit any liability or wrongdoing, and that they settled purely to avoid ongoing litigation. Rose's attorney, asked by ABC News for further comment, declined.
Rachel Bien, the attorney who represented Rose's interns, told the Daily News she considered the suit a watershed. "There are a number of companies that are holding their breath waiting to see what happens," she was quoted as saying. Bien did not respond to an email from ABC News requesting further comment.
Companies with similar suits pending against them include Hearst and Fox, according to The New York Times.
The legal argument in these cases, according to labor advocates, turns in part on whether the internships contributed to the interns' educational experience. It turns, too, on whether employers are in violation of a law prohibiting the use of unpaid interns as substitutes for regular, salaried employees. Both Hearst and Fox deny being in violation.
Lawyer Cohen, whose four internships were all with different branches of New York's justice system, acknowledges that much of the work he performed was "grunt work: boring, mindless, repetitious."
But to focus on the tasks or on the absence of pay, he says, is to miss the point. The benefit such internships confer is real, albeit hard to quantify: They give the intern an inside look at an employer and, by extension, an entire industry. Is taxidermy really for you? Time spent with formaldehyde can help decide. The intern, says Cohen, also gets the chance to make a good impression, which can translate later into a full-time job.
For a young person unfamiliar with the working world, writes Cohen, the benefits go farther: "Internships are about self-discipline, showing up on time, dressing and comporting oneself properly—conforming to the norms of the organization, not merely to the fashion of the classroom. They are about learning how to listen and observe, to be responsive and responsible."
He calls the suit brought against Charlie Rose "dumb" and the settlement "worse." Companies fearing similar litigation now will be less likely to hire interns, he argues.
Indeed, say experts who follow the internship market, that trend is already underway: While some employers have decided that the best way to defuse future legal problems is to start paying interns, others have eliminated or curtailed their internship programs.
Eric Normington is CEO of Dream Careers, a for-profit company that helps match would-be interns with jobs available. This coming summer the company expects to offer 2,000 students about 4,000 situations, some paid, some not.
"We're seeing companies deciding not to offer internships at all, rather than have to pay," he tells ABC News. "It's a significant long-term problem."
The downside, he predicts, is that "we will see a drastically reduced number of employers willing to offer an academically-based program." The upside, though, will be the elimination of programs that are genuinely exploitive and without academic merit. "If it's all about getting coffee," he says, "it's not an internship."