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Unpaid internships gain popularity among the jobless

Working for no pay isn't the preferred route out of unemployment, but it offers valuable experience and the inside track to jobs once they do open up. But critics say employers are exploiting the slow economy by not hiring paid workers.

March 14, 2011|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich speaks to reserve deputy attorneys. If it wasnt for this program, we wouldnt have a criminal division, he said.
Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich speaks to reserve deputy attorneys.… (Katie Falkenberg, For The…)

Malibu resident Ashley St. Johns-Jacobs, 40, typically rises before 5 a.m. to get to her job at the Los Angeles city attorney's office by 8 a.m. After a full day prosecuting misdemeanors, she often brings work home.

What she doesn't bring home is a paycheck. With no position open, she has been working as an unpaid intern for nearly a year in hopes of eventually getting hired when a job opens up.

"We live on a tight budget," said St. Johns-Jacobs, whose husband works as a microphone boom operator for Hollywood studios. "But someday they will be hiring."

Meet the new interns. With the unemployment rate still high and the economy not creating nearly enough jobs to put the nation's 13.7 million unemployed back to work, seasoned workers like St. Johns-Jacobs are doing what was once unthinkable: working for free.

Although they'd all prefer to be paid, many say they are grateful to at least be in the workplace. Sitting at home, their skills may atrophy, and they'll have a hard time explaining that big gap on their resumes to potential employers.

There is little hard data about the number of unpaid workers toiling in the economy. But anecdotal evidence and a quick search of jobs sites such as Craigslist turn up a number of postings in which accountants, bakers, waitresses and nurses volunteer to work for no pay to get their feet in the door.

Allie Abrams, 25, of Venice wants to be a baker, but without any experience, she said she is unlikely to find a job. So she posted an ad on Craigslist offering to work at a bakery for no pay.

"The chance of me being hired part time is slim to none," said Abrams, who wants to someday start a bakery of her own.

Minimum wage laws prohibit employers from hiring employees for less than a certain hourly rate. Unpaid interns are exempt from these rules, but the Labor Department makes clear that the unpaid worker must get something for his or her time.

The training must be similar to that given in a vocational school and for the benefit of the trainees. The interns can't displace regular employees and are not entitled to a job at the end of the internship. Some contend that employers are exploiting the slow economy by using volunteers when they should be hiring paid workers.

"Companies are trying to take advantage of a situation where they need to get work done but they can't afford it because their budgets aren't what they used to be," said Richard Bottner, president of Intern Bridge, a nonprofit that does research on internships.

Although many older unpaid interns agree to work in hope of parlaying the experience into a full-time job, it doesn't always turn out that way.

Marissa Milan, 26, said she worked 360 hours as an unpaid medical assistant in an office in Santa Ana. When her hours were up, she was told she wouldn't be getting a paid job. She is now taking a job in customer service at a different company, although she just completed training to become a medical assistant.

"There are a lot of unpaid opportunities," she said. "But nothing in the field getting a paying job."

The time spent at an internship can take away from the time interns could spend looking for a full-time job, said Angie Cooper, an administrator at Jewish Vocational Services in Los Angeles. Cooper advises unemployed workers to do internships to get out of the house and get experience but says, "We do coach our folks as to when it does become abusive."

The number of highly qualified people agreeing to work for no pay indicates just how bad the labor market is in California, said Sylvia Allegretto, economist at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UC Berkeley.

"If you absolutely can't find a job, and you're better off working for free, that's a real statement about the dire situation in the labor market here in California," she said.

But Tara McManigal, 31, said that working as an unpaid lawyer for the Sacramento County district attorney's office is the only way to eventually land her dream job as a prosecutor. She walked away from a $170,000-a-year job at a San Francisco law firm to volunteer for the district attorney's office, where she has prosecuted cases since November.

She's living — including making payments on her house in Walnut Creek — off savings from her job at the law firm.

"It's not a good economy, and it's really hard to find a job in a prosecutor's office," she said. "I kept applying for jobs, and they said I didn't have enough prosecution experience."

Government agencies throughout California say they must take on volunteer workers because of budget problems. The Los Angeles city attorney's office, for instance, has a hiring freeze, as do many departments throughout the city and state.

"If it wasn't for this program, we wouldn't have a criminal division," said City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, referring to the reserve deputy attorney program in which people like Ashley St. John-Jacobs and 100 or so others have participated.

Trutanich created the program in 2009, when the city made deep budget cuts. Attorneys learn how to prosecute cases in areas such as theft, domestic violence and drunken driving. The program allows interns to take on cases that, in headier times, might have been handled by paid attorneys.

"For the foreseeable future, due to budget constraints, this office will not be authorized by the City Council to hire any additional prosecutors," he said. "However, when we are finally allowed to hire prosecutors, we will have a large pool of very qualified, experienced and trial-tested candidates from which to select a class of new deputy city attorneys."

When that might be, though, Trutanich doesn't know.

alana.semuels@latimes.com

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