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The fine line between crappy jobs and job training

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Jessica Padron poses at a podium in the lobby of the Sawyer State Building on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. Padron was chosen for an internship at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office in Washington, D.C., but needs to raise money to go because the internship is unpaid.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Jessica Padron is still in college, but she has already mastered the first lesson of politics: fundraising. When the UNLV student and aspiring politician won a four-month, unpaid internship in Sen. Maj. Leader Harry Reid’s Washington, D.C., office, she took a creative approach to paying for her time in the nation’s capital. She turned to crowdfunding.

As of press time, Padron was less than $600 from her $6,500 goal, money that she says will go toward rent, transportation and groceries. But whether or not she covers the full amount, her story raises an important question: Should she have to?

The argument for unpaid internships makes claims of resumé boosters, professional references and real, hands-on job experience, but all too often interns are busied with tasks nobody else wants to do. Rather than intensive training, they get data entry and coffee. And unpaid internships are by nature discriminatory, available only to youngsters whose parents can pay their way while they rack up resumé candy. Today, courts are questioning if they’re even legal.

The Fair Labor Standards Act sets criteria for unpaid interns in the for-profit sector, including that the position must be “for the benefit of the intern” and be “similar to training which would be given in an education environment.” In June, a judge ruled in favor of two interns at Fox Searchlight Pictures, who sued their former employer, claiming they were paid less than minimum wage for what amounted to crappy jobs, not job training.

In the wake of the case, Fox Searchlight began paying interns, but so far, Sen. Reid has stayed mum on any changes to his internship policy. Here’s hoping next year’s hire won’t have to get paid by strangers to work in Washington.

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Sarah Feldberg is the editor of Las Vegas Weekly magazine. A veteran journalist, Feldberg previously worked as the Weekly's web ...

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