The Soapbox: Why You Shouldn’t Intern At Anthropologie

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My relationship with Anthropologie is love-hate. I love the company’s handpicked, one-of-a-kind eclectic look. I hate the fact that my loving this stuff only underscores the fact that I am in no way unique and that I have been corporate-brainwashed just like the rest of you ladies who just can’t get enough pencil skirts, ruffled tops and bird motifs. Of course I can’t afford to shop there until something goes on sale — at which point all its “whimsical charm” has worn off and the item somehow returns to looking like the junk it was modeled after.

After my latest visit, however, I think my love-hate has officially turned to hate-hate when I left even more offended than the time I saw an Ikea sticker on an item involved in a window display (proving that even Anthropologie is not stupid enough to shop at Anthropologie). There, next to the register, was a sign announcing that the retailer is currently hiring interns.

With college kids going back to school, many of whom are starting unpaid internships, and with former Harper’s Bazaar intern Diana Wang in the news, suing the mag’s parent company, Hearst Corporation, for violating federal and state labor laws since they did not pay her for her work, it’s time for a refresher on what an internship is and is not.

Potential Anthro interns, listen up. An internship is not a job you do for free. It’s not a “job” inasmuch as the employer is not legally allowed to benefit from bringing you on. According to the law, an internship is a real-life educational opportunity not dissimilar to the training given in a vocational school or academic institution except that it occurs in a nonacademic setting. “In other words,” wrote Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace correspondent for the New York Times, “it’s largely a benevolent contribution to the intern.”  They’re doing you a favor — never the other way around. They are making a charitable contribution to your education; charitable and benevolent are synonyms, both meaning in exchange for nothing. How can I put this another way? To be a legal internship, there’s got to be NOTHING IN IT for your employer other than the warm and fuzzy feeling they get for contributing to your education.

Sometimes internships make sense. People take unpaid internships to bolster their resume. We look like good people when we’ve donated our time, for example, at the animal shelter. People like Wang accept unpaid internships at for-profit companies because they are seeking experience in industries where experience is a must, even for entry-level positions.

The problem, however, is that an internship is not allowed to displace regular paid workers and that’s exactly what’s happening. At for-profit companies, internships are entry-level positions — and this is against the law. According to Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the U.S. Labor department’s wage and hour division, there are few circumstances where for-profit companies can host an unpaid intern and still be in compliance with the federal and state labor laws.

Anthropologie refuses to talk about its internship program, leaving me to imagine that accepting an internship at Anthropologie is either A) initiating into a cult, B) joining Fight Club or C) abetting an unscrupulous multi-million dollar company bent on exploiting young women who love frocks while usurping its legal responsibility to create better paid positions. This past January, Rebecca Greenfield wrote about her local Anthro offering college credit for their Visual Display Internship, and was able to dig up this description of a similar sounding internship being offered at a Scarsdale, Arizona location: “Interns responsible for supporting the visual team with the successful implementation of all display elements within a store — windows, signage, platforms, shelf uppers and jewelry cases. Salary: 0.00 – 0.00 USD.” Says Greenfield, “This whole thing feels extra icky.” Cross stitch that on an apron, Anthro.

When I worked as a public school teacher in the Bronx, my coworker — a fellow art teacher — had a second job at her local Anthropologie (because public school teachers are paid that much). I’m sure she would’ve loved the above-described duties added onto her folding T-shirts and smiling at customers routine. And certainly the retailer would have benefited from her aesthetic sensibility, as they are certainly benefiting from whatever eager college kid they ultimately bring on. Why not give employees like Melinda more interesting positions and compensate them for the added responsibilities?  Because it’s not about employees like Melinda, I suspect — and that’s illegal.

Whereas internships may be an entree into a white collar world that demands experience even for an entry-level position, retail already offers many entry-points for low-skilled workers. In this economy in particular, which is suffering from a glut of overqualified, underemployed or underpaid workers, people like Melinda — or myself, for that matter — don’t need experience. We need jobs that pay.

In college, I worked five unpaid internships: I was a volunteer rape crisis counselor, I worked at two domestic violence shelters and was an assistant preschool teacher, among other job titles. All my “experiential learning” did lead to a job; the last place I interned for, the Lower Eastside Girls Club, offered me a full-time salaried position that I held for years before returning to grad school. Maybe they wouldn’t have done so had they known how I could afford to work for them unpaid: all the while I interned at The Girls Club, an organization that provides afterschool program for economically disadvantaged girls, this economically disadvantaged girl was working as a stripper at night.

Bottom line: not everyone can afford to work for free. Unpaid or poorly paid internships undermine the working class, and for a store that essentially co-opts poor peoples’ look, making millions selling mock thrift store finds and flea market fashion, it takes some homespun shabby chic balls to turn viable jobs into slave labor.

Contact the author of this post at melissa.petro@gmail.com.

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