Unpaid Architecture Internships Come Under Fire
November 28, 2012
Image via @EricGlatt, who is working to end “unpaid labor guised as internships”
Story by C. J. Hughes
Architecture firms have often relied on unpaid interns, even if some firms don’t exactly advertise the tradition. But after recent lawsuits brought by former interns in other industries, the custom is starting to come under fire in the design world.
“You’re expected to intern under an architect, so it’s very important that architects compensate interns fairly,” says Kelly McAlonie, president of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York State chapter. To drive home her point, McAlonie, an architect for the University of Buffalo, emailed a letter to members this fall reminding them that it’s unethical, and possibly illegal, to “exploit workers not only in times of financial boom, but also in times of economic hardship.” Downturns are thought to make employers less likely to pay interns.
McAlonie’s letter is believed to be one of the first organized attempts to address an issue that has bedeviled the industry for decades. Still, complaints by interns are rarely publicly leveled. One 26-year-old architecture student who had an unpaid internship in the summer of 2011 agreed to comment for this story, but only if his name wasn’t used. “I don’t want to blacklist myself,” he says. “It’s a very small community, and I don’t want to be known as someone who tattled on these people.” Read more.
The student worked at a boutique New York firm, and on several occasions, he pulled all-nighters. He was told he might get paid once projects got off the ground, but he was never compensated. “I will never work for free again,” he says.
Others are angry that employers have the upper hand. “Employers know that people need the experience, so they know someone will take the job,” says a former intern. After graduating from Columbia University this past May, the 25-year-old designer accepted a job with a New York firm that didn’t pay her, even though she logged 30 hours a week.
The firm began compensating her in September, but only at $12 per hour, which is below the $15 an hour she made during undergraduate internships. The woman is now looking for part-time work as a bartender.
Though few current and former interns feel comfortable talking about their experiences, “you can’t live in fear,” says architect Paul Segal, who has taught students at Columbia for decades. “I tell them, don’t worry about how it will hurt you. People actually will respect you.” Segal, author of the textbook Professional Practice, adds that unpaid internships don’t count toward an NCARB industry license anyhow.
According to 1938’s federal Fair Labor Standards Act, interns must be paid at least a minimum wage. However, no money needs to change hands if the individual earns academic credit, merely shadows an employer, and the employer derives “no immediate advantage,” says the U. S. Department of Labor. The federal agency has received few complaints from unpaid interns, so it doesn’t know the scope of the problem, says spokeswoman, Sonia Melendez. “If we knew of complaints, we would take them seriously,” she adds.
Two recent high-profile cases have thrust the issue into the spotlight.
In one, a pair of interns sued Fox Entertainment Group over work they did on the movie Black Swan; it’s since turned into a class-action suit. The other involves Diana Wang, who sued the Hearst Corporation for unpaid work at Harper’s Bazaar magazine; 3,000 former interns have joined her case.
“It’s an awful thing, and it’s illegal,” says Lorin Schneider, a partner with new Jersey-based law firm Schneider & Rubin, which was founded last year specifically to help interns. “I hope to represent architecture industry soon.”
Many architectural firms claim to be above-board. Large companies like Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Gensler, and Perkins Eastman all pay their interns, according to spokespeople. So do smaller regional practices like New York-based Architecture Research Office (ARO), though the office does have non-paid academic interns, says a spokeswoman.
Regardless, many architects say the practice persists. “Quite honestly, this profession is known for eating its young,” says Thomas Penn, an architect with Penn Van Meter Architects on Long Island. He runs the internship program for NCARB in New York. “Firms are hurting, I understand,” he says, “but you can’t take it out on the interns.”
C.J. Hughes is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Architectural Record, and other publications.