Sunday, March 7, 2010

Wage Theft: How Employers Steal From Employees and Job Seekers

A client who is a fashion designer told me that when she goes on a job interview, she's usually asked to create a "mock" design. She says she has seen her "mock" designs on companies' line of clothing--including a swimsuit in Vogue.

That reminded me of how often employers ask job candidates to create a work "sample." One employer admitted to me that he had no intention of hiring anyone but placed a job ad. He had all the applicants write a plan for marketing his company's core product, which he then used as free work product. He said, "They were all so eager to get the (nonexistent) job that they killed themselves in creating their plan. I got great ideas." Pig.

And of course, there are internships, which are proliferating: employers convert what used to be paying jobs into no-pay or pittance-pay internships. It used to be you had to be a student to be hireable as an intern but that seems to have gone by the boards. A relative of mine worked as an unpaid intern in the Clinton White House writing Hillary Clinton's daily briefing. After a year of that, she asked Hillary's chief of staff, Evelyn Lieberman, "I feel guilty living off my parents. You have me doing important work for a year now. Could you see your way clear to paying me?" Evelyn responded, "Don't you realize how lucky you are to have an internship in the White House?!" My relative, incensed at the hypocrisy of Hillary, who gives speeches on behalf of labor, wouldn't even pay her, who had won her university's outstanding student award, minimum wage. She quit.

And then there was this employer of mine--a major corporation--that asked me to write 50 articles as an "investment" in the magazine's website, with a promise that as soon as advertising revenues came in, I'd be well paid. Indeed the advertising, lots of it (all national ads, including Viagra!), came in. How much did I receive? $3,000. That's $60 an article. The managing editor said "That's a down payment." I never received another dime.

It ain't easy being a worker, let alone a job seeker in this economy.

For more on wage theft, see and the book, Wage Theft in America: Why millions of working Americans are not paid and what we can do about it.


Anonymous said...

"And of course, there are internships, which are proliferating: employers convert what used to be paying jobs into no-pay or pittance-pay internships. It used to be you had to be a student to be hireable as an intern but that seems to have gone by the boards."

Absolutely! I have worked in three different law firms in my paralegal career, thus lots of job hunting in that industry. I have never seen so many jobs posted as "internships". They are primarily posted by small or sole proprietor firms. What people need to realize is that most law firms want, at minimum, 2-3 years experience in a given legal field. Therefore, a six-month stint as an "intern" is simply giving your time and talent away for no tangible gain.

Thanks for your post - I thought I was the only one that had noticed this trend.

Anonymous said...

Timely post, Marty. Internships aren't just for the young ones anymore.

Have a story to share from Australia. I began a university degree full time last year, after a few years of working in commercial real estate, and looking after a property management portfolio solo for a small agency. I've been doing "work experience" for an international property company, since November of last year. I have tactfully raised the issue of being put on the payroll a few times, but am met with silence.

Silently stewing as I'm "plug and play", unlike the younger ones, and I've brought my expertise to them. They have even asked me to help train others!

ST said...

A few years ago before anything turned down in the economy, I had an interview where they sent me "homework" to complete and prepare a presentation for as part of the interview process. To this day, I don't have a clue if I did it correctly, because they never gave me any feedback. But, since it was in a completely different industry, I spent hours and hours researching the industry to understand the terminology of what they were even asking me in the homework. I prepared a neatly done Powerpoint presentation.

The interview started in HR. Of course the first thing they ask is salary, which I still don't agree with even after working 30 years why they have to put price as one of the first criteria. Next, I met with the manager who I'd be working for. It was a typical interview, but part of it was he gave me a "puzzle" to solve to see how I would approach a problem to solve it. After the fact, I did the logistics of it correctly, but I missed an overlap situation and my answer was a little more than the correct one, since I doubled up on part of the quantity (the answer was for the "number of" something, a counting problem). He told me there were three types of people, 1. those who try to come up with a mathematical formula, 2. those who use logic, and 3. those who have no clue. I felt since I was #2, I at least was in the more efficient category. Next, I met with another manager who gave me a relational database problem to solve. That one I did correctly and she confirmed it. Then, I gave the presentation to the hiring manager and another manager. I thought the presentation went well, but my worry was if I had a good solution, because I really didn't feel like I came up with a good conclusion. Then, I went to lunch with a few other team members. After lunch I had a couple more "typical" interviews which I don't like, given by people who could be close to what my daughter or son's age might be, asking questions like what is your 5 year plan and all that. Then, my final interview was with the VP who gave me a really off the wall question and after trying to answer it 3 different ways (and getting it wrong, I guess), he just kept asking me the same question, the same way. Then, after a little chit chat, I was done.

After calling twice to follow up on how I did and express my interest, all I got was a referral to the same HR guy, who of course just left me a voice mail and said we've selected other candidates ... and by the way, if you have any further questions, please call.

My point in this story is related to the free work thing, in that candidates will do all this work for employers when interviewing, and they get absolutely no feedback. I'm sure part of it is fear of lawsuits and all that, but it does seem a little ridiculous. I really don't think they were getting free work out of people in this job opening, and for most of the process, it seemed like a good way to evaluate candidates, but still.

I ran across this article in "Science Careers" and thought it was a good way for employers to interview. Notice, though, this also was written before the economic crash. Given that the guy was probably in financial engineering, who knows if he's still working there.

ST said...

I didn't know if I did the above link correctly:

Maureen said...

"And of course, there are internships."

At times, you've advised people to create their own internships. Is it clear to everyone when internships are good and when they're evil? *I* know the difference. Do all of your readers?

Marty Nemko said...


I'd assess their worth by asking such questions as:
--What percent of interns end up getting paid jobs?
-- What sort of mentorship and training will I get?
-- And of course, is the work during the internship meaningful and resume-abetting?
Maureen: Would you add something to that list?

anita said...

In the advertising agency business, it's common to be asked to create a "spec" campaign (meaning free) and there's nothing to keep the prospective client from taking your ideas, using them, sometimes not even altering them to hide the fact, then claiming they pre-existed your pitch. It happens. It's so wrong.

Anonymous said...

Why not let the goverment pay you while you work as an intern?


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