Why Can’t Ivanka Trump Pay Her Interns?

$100m in sales, but brand says interns get #nomoneynoproblems

A tweet caught my eye today:

Ivanka Trump deserves kudos for inviting unpaid interns to talk openly about their (un)pay on her company’s official blog. Pay transparency isn’t just the law. It’s good policy for companies.

That being said, unpaid internships are bad policy. Unpaid editorial & social media intern Quincy Bulin illustrates why, in her “survival tips” piece for Ivanka’s website. Quincy writes:

If you know you’ll be an unpaid intern during the summer, you can anticipate your expenses by working while school is still in session. “By working on-campus jobs and doing freelance design work during the school year, I was able to put away enough money to be able to have some summer fun on the weekends,” says MacKenzie Schroeder, our graphic design intern. Mackenzie Owens, our licensing intern, adopted the same philosophy with her job at a restaurant, where she works during the school year. “At the end of each night, I put half my tips in a clear jar so I could see my progress and motivate myself,” she says.

Quincy chose brown girl emoji for the illustration accompanying her piece, but many real brown girls don’t have the same privileges she enjoys. (I wasn’t aware of this at 20, and I don’t expect Quincy to be — but there does come a time to learn.) The Atlantic explained comprehensively why race determines millennials’ ability to work for little or nothing during college:

….most studies show that a primary reason why people of color are unable to save as adults is because they give financial support to close family. This is important because when emergencies happen, many Millennials won’t have the reserve money to cover them.

NYC is world’s most expensive city for employees. If you’re a first-generation college student from a poor family, even if you’re able to save enough for New York rent and groceries during your internship, what happens when your parents need help making a mortgage payment? Do you let your childhood home get foreclosed, or do you dig deep into your “working for nothing this summer” fund and kiss your dream internship goodbye?

Unpaid internships are bad for companies, period.

If people with internship experience aren’t given preference for entry-level paying jobs, there’s little reason for students to work an unpaid internship.

But, if people with internship experience are given preference for entry-level paying jobs, companies that hire those former interns can never claim to be meritocracies. Instead, the best they can hope to do is hire the best from a candidate pool that only the ultra-privileged are invited to swim in.

Are Ivanka’s unpaid internships even legal?

When employing unpaid interns, employers can determine whether or not the internship is legal via Department of Labor Fact Sheet #71, which reads, in part:

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
 2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
 3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff; 
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded; 
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and 
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

On her blog, Quincy suggests that part of her internship is posting tweets for the Ivanka Trump brand:

…accidentally publishing a tweet instead of scheduling it keeps me up at all hours of the night.

Although accidentally publishing a tweet at the wrong time may meet the “…its operations may actually be impeded” standard from Fact Sheet #71, it’s hard to argue that Ivanka Trump’s brand “derives no immediate advantage” from having a talented young writer posting tweets on its behalf.

It does appear that Quincy is “working under close supervision”:

This really hit home when I was writing a piece for the website and the editorial director pointed out that my word choice for something could have been better. Our brand is supposed to be chic and naturally, the word “burst” doesn’t imply any amount of chicness.

However, if Quincy reports to the Editorial Director, her role may be one that could “displace regular employees.” Typically, a Director would manage entry-level to mid-level paid employees, who in turn would supervise interns. Indeed.com places average compensation of a Social Media Coordinator in New York City at about $56,000. By writing and scheduling tweets for the Ivanka Trump Brand, Quincy may be displacing someone who would otherwise be hired at that respectable salary.

Quincy’s blog gives every indication that Ivanka Trump has cultivated a positive company culture where her interns will learn rapidly and experience good management. For instance:

It sort of shocked me when I offered to get work done at home after hours and my manager told me no way, but wow, what a blessing it is.

Some companies that don’t pay their interns ask them to work from home, too. If you’re not paid, you can’t earn overtime, right? Good on Ivanka for cultivating a culture where students who aren’t being paid are forbidden from taking their work home.

But there’s one more thing Fact Sheet #71 has to say about unpaid interns, and I don’t think Quincy’s internship complies:

If the employer would have hired additional employees or required existing staff to work additional hours had the interns not performed the work, then the interns will be viewed as employees and entitled compensation under the FLSA. Conversely, if the employer is providing job shadowing opportunities that allow an intern to learn certain functions under the close and constant supervision of regular employees, but the intern performs no or minimal work, the activity is more likely to be viewed as a bona fide education experience. On the other hand, if the intern receives the same level of supervision as the employer’s regular workforce, this would suggest an employment relationship, rather than training.

No fashion brand in 2016 goes without a Twitter profile, so, if Ivanka had no unpaid interns, she’d compensate someone to write tweets. In addition, Quincy’s blog cites specific work duties including “writing a piece for the website” which was edited by the Editorial Director — this does not sound like performing “no or minimal work,” and does sound very much like receiving the same level of supervision as the employer’s regular workforce.

I’m no lawyer, and I can’t prove Ivanka’s internships are illegal. Even if I was and I could, it’s interns derive enough benefit from this opportunity that none of them would complain. (And that’s how class privilege is perpetuated, of course.) But, while serving as a campaign surrogate for her father, Ivanka would be wise to start paying her interns. With her company’s current success, she can afford it.

I’m not mad at you, Quincy.

Like you, I’m luckier than a lot of my peers in my privileges and the opportunities I’ve had — but you sound way cooler than I’ve ever been. Your enthusiasm for your internship shines through in everything you write. You’ve tweeted about how your faith guides you to live gracefully, gratefully, and humbly. Ivanka is lucky to have you.

You’ll get the value of your unpaid work back with interest, when you claim one of the primo opportunities that go to people who, like you, have three or four prestigious unpaid internships under their belt. Some of the people you go to school with with won’t be eligible for those great first jobs, not because they are less talented or less hard-working than you, but because an unpaid internship was never an option for them. They were already the first in their family to go to college, and that means their relatives look to them as “the successful child” who can help support the family — not as a tender fledgling millennial who still receives familial support.

The best unpaid internship survival advice is advice that nobody can take: be born white and well-off.

I manage interns now. I feel fortunate to have been able to offer a living wage to every intern I’ve hired. If I didn’t pay, I would probably still end up choosing some great interns, some good ones, and some who find themselves miscast in the role. But, because I do pay, I know my interns will never have to choose between “an internship that positions me for a career” and “a summer job that will allow me to survive and help my family survive.” That alone is worth it.

It’s not your fault that the fashion world is set up this way, Quincy. But you’re well on your way to claiming a leadership position where you’ll be able to make changes. When you get there, hire some interns who have the chops to work at the very top, but not the funds to work for free. You’ll be really glad you did when their diverse perspectives, insights and skill sets allow you to crush your competitors… maybe even including your old boss, Ivanka Trump.