Pay up!

Every now and then I read something that just makes me mad. Well, actually, it happens all the time. For instance, when North Carolina voters outlaw gay civil unions, or the state of Virginia mandates ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, or Mitt Romney talks about understanding black people because his forefathers owned slaves…  

But then occasionally I will read something that totally pisses me off. And that happened last Sunday. My husband (and partner in crime and Milestone), Dennis Doros, pointed out an article in the New York Times by Steven Greenhouse about unpaid internships, entitled “Jobs Few, Grads Flock to Unpaid Internships.”

 Reading Greenhouse’s article, I learned that thanks to a jobless rate of 9.4 percent for college graduates ages 24 and under, many folks are taking unpaid work. The rationale behind these internships, Greenhouse explains, is that in exchange for volunteer labor, the employer provides education and connections. But (BIG surprise spoiler here) this is not always the case!

Greenhouse writes about one unpaid intern who worked 60 hours a week for a fashion designer doing what was essentially grunt work — ordering lunch and cleaning closets. Another former intern sued Fox Searchlight for violating minimum wage laws.

The article concludes with the story of Joyce Lee, a Wesleyan grad now working at a coffee shop in NYC while she makes her own film. Lee worked six internships in LA, including one where she read scripts and picked up mail for a Hollywood mogul. “Scott Rudin is made of money. I don’t think it would be so hard for him to pay five interns the minimum wage,” she noted, adding “If I ever become a famous filmmaker, I promise I will pay my interns.”

This practice of unpaid internships makes me crazy. Companies “hire” smart, talented and qualified grads for free and these highly employable young people take these internships because there are no real jobs. And why are there no jobs? Because employers can get people to work for nothing.

This is madness on so many levels. And it is just plain wrong.

As you may know, Milestone consists (at the moment) of the aforementioned D. Doros and myself. We work in the basement of our home. In the past, we have had staff, but right now, we just can’t afford the overhead (and if you saw how low the ceilings are in this basement, you would laugh at the irony). So, guess what? We do all the work ourselves! We pick up the mail, ship out the packages and scrub the john. Paraphrasing Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant,” we’re not proud, or tired…

We do hire summer student interns, and guess what? We PAY them. Yup. Why? Because it is wrong to ask people to work for free. Period.

And do we ask our (admittedly, not very highly) paid interns to do the least interesting most menial work at Milestone? Nope. We figure that they are with us to learn and we do everything we can to make their time with us educational and productive. Even fun, sometimes.

We ask our interns to do things like research and write press materials, design websites, edit trailers and produce DVDs. And when they do (we have had amazingly bright and talented interns!), we give them credit for their work. We also invite them to press screenings, introduce them to filmmakers and other film folks, ask them to screen film submissions and (often) buy them lunch.

Of course, we can be annoying and boring and not all our interns have loved their time at Milestone. Hell, we annoy ourselves (and each other) sometimes! And sometimes we do ask interns to file invoices or move boxes. Hey, it’s a job.

It’s a job that we have been working at for almost 22 years. And somehow, we still love our work — even the mundane stuff. Okay, maybe not cleaning the cat boxes…

By the way, if you haven’t guessed, Dennis and I are somewhat lower down on the financial and industry totem pole than Scott Rudin. In fact, I would guess we are pretty close to the bottom of that pillar. But saving a few thousand dollars by ripping off high school and college students doesn’t seem like it would rocket us to the heights of the film business.

Let me end by thanking the many terrific young men and women we have had the opportunity to employ and get to know over the years. Some have gone on to work in the film business (a DVD producer in NYC, head of an animation company, an independent filmmaker in LA) and others are improving the world in other ways (administrator of post-Katrina school in New Orleans, a nursing student organizing a “Rebellious Nursing” conference). We are grateful for all they have added to our company and our lives.

You know, paying your employees can be very rewarding…