From The New York Shitty Inbox: Point/Counterpoint

Fuck YouThere has been many a repost— and commentary— since I posted a flyer protesting an Craigslist advertisement listed by Roberta’s seeking an unpaid intern to work in their garden this upcoming summer. So many, in fact, I am not going to attempt to list them all here.

Nonetheless, I received interesting correspondence on the subject. With out further ado, here we go! A fellow business owner in Bushwick writes:

Hi Heather,

As a fellow restaurant owner in Bushwick, I’ve caught your piece on the Roberta’s unpaid intern mini-scandal and wanted to come to their defense (a bit) to offer a bit of a counterpoint:

Obviously, what they’re doing breaks several labor laws, but two important points should be noted:

  • Gardening is expensive. The urban gardening that they’re doing is a fantastic sustainable project, and we’ve started building out our own local farm as well. When we ran the numbers on what it would cost to maintain and divided it by the estimated man-hours for the project, on a per-hour basis it came out to less than minimum wage. So from a pure fiscal perspective, any motivation for city-based agricultural projects are not going to be financially viable. The two individuals I hired to run our farm, Jason Reis & Spike Appel, are two phenomenal individuals who genuinely love farming – in fact, they run a local non-profit called Bushwick City Farms where they not only don’t do it for profit, they actually give away their entire harvest every season to the local community free of charge. We’ve undertaken our own urban farm with the full understanding that it won’t help our bottom line, & are compensating Jason & Spike. So while I sympathize with Roberta’s on the cost of running their garden, they could probably afford to pay their interns.
  • The experience would be invaluable. While it’s easy to bash any company that exploits unpaid interns, I’d like to draw on my own experiences when I was a young 20-something. The internship would in fact be a great learning experience and most importantly, Roberta’s would be investing their time & money into working with interns. Think of it this way – if you wanted to go the route of taking a course with Boswyck Farms in Brooklyn [link], it would cost you $1750, while the Roberta’s experience would cost you zero. And prior to opening up Skytown, I had never worked in the bar/restaurant industry, so I was desperate to get some hands-on experience managing a restaurant. Nobody wanted to bother helping me out, so I ended up actually having to pay someone for the privilege of working as an unpaid intern so I could learn the ropes. In other words, me getting free direct training from a general manager who makes $30/hour has a far greater impact than me getting a part-time at $15/hour job to learn the same thing.

For every person who looks at this and is (rightfully so) inspired to post a “FUCK YOU” flyer, I’m sure there’s somebody out there who would gladly take them up on their offer (I intend to do it for my own learning benefit). So the moral of the story is that yes, New York is a ruthlessly expensive city and not everybody has the luxury of taking unpaid internships. But for all the young transplants out there about to embark on the city, I encourage them to look past the crappy hourly wage and to get their hands on the best learning experiences they can get in order to develop skills & get their foot in the door – because the best investment that you can ever make is in yourself.

And now, a second perspective:

To Whom It May Concern at Roberta’s,

It has recently come to the public’s—and our—attention that your company solicited for free labor via an ad on Craigslist, specifically for labor to provide value to the restaurant by working in your garden (“Urban Farm looking for Intern”). As the public’s response and press attention no doubt illustrate, this has touched a nerve with many, certainly not least because of how this runs counter to the brand image Roberta’s has cultivated of promoting economic vitality in the community. It probably felt natural to draw on associations of urban gardening with true community-owned and -managed gardens, gardens that exist because of the sweat and toil of neighborhood volunteers, gardens which are not privately owned, but owned by the people, recognized as part of a commons so often lost to privatization and the forces of gentrification.

We invite you to reconsider the factors that apparently have led you to initiate an employment relationship that is likely in violation of state and federal minimum wage laws. And not only that: We call on you to cease employing unpaid interns—implicitly relying on their low power status to keep them from filing legal claims for the wages they may be due by law—and to make a public statement denouncing the widespread practice of employers profiting from the valuable work performed by unpaid interns.

We presume that your initial decision was not rooted in a conscious disregard for the law or the ethics underlying it, but rather that Roberta’s shares the common yet mistaken understanding that if labor is provided by an employee called an “intern” and that employee will learn something new, there is no legal or ethical requirement to compensate or treat that worker as any other employee.

But the situation is not quite so simple. In 2010 the U.S. Department of Labor published Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, “to help determine whether interns must be paid the minimum wage and overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act for the services that they provide to ‘for-profit’ private sector employers.” It states, in part:

If an employer uses interns as substitutes for regular workers or to augment its existing workforce during specific time periods, these interns should be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a workweek. 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.

By this measure, your advertisement would appear to be for a position that is not in compliance with the law. And yet, violation of this law is not the limit of our concern. We oppose the widespread use of free labor guised as “internships” for a number of reasons, including that it:

  • Contributes to unemployment and inequality
  • Denies opportunity to those who cannot afford to work for free
  • Reduces diversity of race and class in the workforce by relying on structural privilege
  • Erodes workplace protections, including against sexual harassment and racial discrimination
  • Devalues the dignity of work
  • Creates downward pressure on the wages of workers who have to compete with free labor
  • Promotes the accumulation of wealth by some through the uncompensated work of others
  • Produces a culture of self-denigration

The price of your food and the clientele it brings have already been catalysts for gentrification in the area. Your decision to deny fair compensation to all the labor needed to run your business exacerbates this problem, excluding low-income residents from the opportunity to participate in the local workforce, further pushing them out of their own community. As a presumptive valuable force in the neighborhood, Roberta’s can transform this unwelcome turn in the spotlight to its advantage by reversing its position on this practice and by publicly taking a stand to respect the residents of its community, as well as the labor and hard work that helps it thrive. We look forward to seeing your support for the return to a more sustainable and healthier labor market.

Another world is possible,

Intern Labor Rights

So there have you.

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