WE ALL KNOW that saying: “Hard work pays off.” I’m not sure if someone conveniently added the word “off” at what should have been “Hard work PAYS” at some point in time, or if the cliché continues as originally intended, but that little word “off” gives it an entirely different meaning. Lately, there seems to be a plethora of people and companies who want (or even expect) people to do work for free.
In 2013, Condé Nast (the major media conglomerate that publishes magazines such as but not limited to: Vogue, Vanity Fair, W Magazine, and GQ) made the decision to end their internship program after two W Magazine interns started a class-action lawsuit claiming their boss violated federal labor laws.The devil may wear Prada, which he probably affords by using all that cash he saves on free labor.
And never one to be outshined, Hollywood is being accused of similar wrongdoings. Major talent agency ICM is involved in ongoing litigation with former interns who are suing the power agency for similar practices, trying to expose the vast amount of work and hours they’re required to put in all under the guise of receiving that oh-so-coveted college credit. Just to throw my own Hollywood internship story in for your benefit, I was once sent to the Hustler store to buy a bachelor party card while interning for a well-known producer. I’m not entirely certain what special skill that added to my resume but suffice to say, I learned a lot.
According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers 2013 Internship & Co-op Survey, the number of internships was expected to increase by 2.7 percent in 2013 (the 2014 survey isn’t available yet). Well, duh. What company doesn’t want to take part in having intelligent, eager workers that they don’t have to pay, when the alternative is hiring someone with a bachelor’s degree and the exact same skills as a college junior at an average hourly rate of $16.26? Yes, internships are supposed to be learning programs for young industry-hopefuls to gain important experience that will give them competitive edges when it comes to looking for positions, but they hardly ever are. Interns are usually, for lack of a better term, b**ches who work ridiculous hours and fetch executives coffee — which they had better get right or BYE-BYE internship and vague letter of rec.
But what I’m really talking about are college graduates and working professionals who are asked to do work FOR FREE. I realize that I’m in a unique position as both a writer and a freelancer, but this is a topic that weighs heavily on my colleagues and me, especially something that is unique to our industry: writing material on spec, which refers to when writers put in effort to produce pieces, scripts, article and anything else which might not get get picked up or might go unused by an editor, meaning so-sad-too-bad-but-you’re-not-getting-paid.
But aside from the actual writing of articles, I have been asked to do things pro bono for different outlets, and so have countless of my friends and colleagues that work throughout this industry and similar ones. I personally always bill for whatever I’ve been asked to do. I use my signature phrase (to myself only) that I don’t write anything out of the kindness of my heart. I am not on salary and Lord knows I don’t receive any benefits, so if a boss reaches out and specifically asks me to do something for them or write something for them, well, then, it’s work and you’d better believe it’s billable. I am very grateful that I work with lovely people that have always respected that, but I know people who are bombarded by their bosses 24/7 and have threatened to stop responding to their emails unless they get compensated for their work. Some may argue that it’s part of the job, especially in the creative industries, and to a certain extent, they are right. But when is enough enough?
Maybe it’s because we’re writers and the process of writing is thought to be easy, since we just sit down and do it and supposedly enjoy it. I’ve never heard of people going to the doctor and asking for a free EKG, though, no matter how much that doctor loves firing up that machine. Hell, politicians who enter a line of work called “public service” are even paid. But the mentality of the higher-ups today seems like not only should we be grateful to have jobs in this economy and work hard at them (which, trust me, we are and do), but that we should do whatever is asked of us whenever it’s asked of us, no matter how last-minute or inconvenient, and hope that maybe we’ll see some returns on the investment of our time and energy.
Sadly, I don’t think this practice of requiring free work is going to stop until people continuously say no, and because most of us do live in constant fear of losing our jobs in an unstable profession and unstable economy, we don’t. Bills and stomachs don’t care that the screenplay you worked all month on didn’t get picked up, after all. So next time we want to disparage the generation below us as Gen Y-ers whom we think spend more time Snapchatting than learning about the Supreme Court, let’s remember that they are the ones fighting the good fight. True, they might not have as much to lose, but they’re still taking the big guys on and, in some cases, even winning.
The best things in life may very well be free, but your time and work shouldn’t be. Hard work should pay.