Letter to the Editor: Paying to Work


By James F. Finn

We have all heard the expression, “You have to pay to play.” But have you heard the new expression, “You have to pay to work”?

On September 16, 2014, the 69th session of the United Nations Generally Assembly will convene in New York. Hot topics of discussion will include peace and conflict resolution, climate change, economic development in Africa, and human rights. Let us pause for moment to ask an important question: How can we solve the plight of the third world when young people in the first world are struggling to find work?

The Economic Policy Institute published a study just in time for college graduations across the country. The study found that the unemployment rate for college graduates stood at 8.5% while underemployment of graduates within their respective fields stands at 16.8%.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 7.35.37 AMI grew up in Greenwich, attended university, loaded my summers with professional internships, and built a portfolio. By age 21, I had attained marketable skills in a four-year time period. My parents did not have these splendid opportunities coming out of college in the eighties. One would think that this trajectory would lead me to an entry-level, full time job – wishful thinking. Instead, it has led me to internships – paid and unpaid – and part-time work.

I interviewed recently with a prospective employer who was offering part-time work to cover a prestigious event that could not only prove invaluable for my portfolio, but also turn into a full-time opportunity contingent upon funding. The catch: a three to six month commitment yielding $50 per month. I recognized, not only would I be paid next-to-nothing, but also I would be paying to come to work – yet another uncovered expenditure. Needless to say, I politely declined. This part time opportunity violates the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. If the federal minimum wage is set at $7.25 per hour, then for 30 days of work, I would have made only $1.67 per day.

My experience is an episode in a series of unfortunate events where an intern or recent graduate was not offered or properly compensated for professional work. To all who will dismiss my story as that of “another entitled millennial lamenting the woes of unemployment,” I want to politely ask you to think back to your younger self and ask, “If I were in his [or her] shoes, do I really deserve this? Does this practice ever end?”

The promise of full time work down the road rings hollow after completing three professional internships and a Bachelor’s degree. The ticket has been punched, which conductor will take it?

James Ferguson Finn is a class of 2014 graduate from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, with a degree in Visual and Media Arts. He has happily and willingly interned at Viva Creative, Computer Sciences Corporation, Northern Lights and the Bruce Museum. He is currently a freelance contributor to the Greenwich Free Press and is actively seeking full-time employment.