Work for free? Why more employers expect it ... and the unemployed agree

One of the trends from the recession that seems to have embedded itself in our culture is the idea that job seekers should work for free. Traditionally, free labor was limited to college students who hoped to gain some experience between semesters in their chosen field and retirees with too much time on their hands so they volunteered.

But today, jobless practitioners are asked to toil for nothing -- and many are doing it with the hope that when a job opens up, they will have a foot in the door.

One of the first professions to cave to the notion that working for free was somehow of benefit to them was my own: Writers and editors, many of them laid-off journalists, who were floundering and grateful to have a purpose restored to their day. Blog sites, large and small, offered writers a chance to publish. And missing the sight of their bylines and eager to have someone "want" them again, they did so for gratis and exposure.





But now the practice has spread to marketing and sales, the music industry, and just about everywhere else where there exists a corporate climate of business owners eager to enhance their bottom line.

Author Harlan Ellison, in a widely circulated YouTube video, (see above) trashes a Hollywood studio that asked to use his work without compensation. "Do you get a paycheck? Does your boss get a paycheck? ... then how dare you call and ask me to work for nothing" he blasts. He calls writers who work for nothing "amateurs" and says they make it tough for the professionals. He says this, by the way, in saltier language than WalletPop will use; consider this your warning.

Using somewhat less salty language but with perhaps mightier authority, comes the Department of Labor's crackdown on unpaid internships. An internship needs to be a learning experience, and college students don't need to learn to fetch coffee.

The logic follows that if companies pay its interns, the company will be more vested in having those interns perform meaningful work. And a business that can't afford to pay an intern even minimum wage isn't likely to be a sustainable firm that could hire them in the future.

"During these tough economic times, many managers are looking to free labor for their own benefit," says Naresh Vissa, who as a college intern sued his boss to recover unpaid wages. "They'll forge a great relationship and provide good recommendations about you, but when you need their help (like a job) in the future, they'll turn the other way. Now is the most dangerous time for such frauds. Make sure you do your due diligence about any potential employer."

Scott Behren, an employment lawyer based in Florida who runs the www.takethisjobnshoveitblog.com, says everybody loses when people aren't paid for work. Employment taxes, Social Security and FICA aren't getting collected. And if you aren't an employee, you don't have employee protections including those against harassment. He recalls his own entry into the legal world as a law school graduate looking for a job. Law firms would offer candidates a "test" -- basically to prepare a brief on one of their active cases. Competition for a single opening resulted in a lot of legal work getting done for free, he says.

New Jersey-based human resources consultant Lisa Chenofsky Singer says that many college grads and mid-career professionals are accepting "volunteer" positions to gain needed experience in a different field than the one they were booted from. She adds, however that "As a practice, many companies are taking advantage of the market situation."
"As the government begins to crack down on this practice, it should change," she said.

But apparently there is literally a line of people willing to work for nothing. More than 400 people showed up for a Jobnob networking event last year in the Bay Area for professionals willing to work without pay, according to a Yahoo account of the event.

Jobnob.com arranges these non-paying job fairs regularly. The company serves as a matchmaking service between the unemployed and "compensation-bootstrapped start-ups." If you are "flexible" about what jingles in your pocket, you may find a company willing to take you for some kind of "alternative compensation" such as equity in the new firm, reduced rates or simply their undying thanks. The website urges the unemployed to "Get in on the ground floor with these great start-ups and meet cool tech companies!"

Are there any benefits to working for free? Well, you get to meet the people you may be sending your resume to -- and thus might have a leg up on the competition, assuming the firm actually starts to pay people to work for them ever again. You might also get a very enthusiastic reference from someone who was seriously delighted with your work, especially in light of the fact that you did it without pay.

Does that offset the arguments of those who think the work-for-free strategy demeans workers and identifies you as someone ready to be taken advantage of?

Katharine Hadow, whose email signature is "Know any open marketing/communications jobs in northern NJ?," shares this bit of humor from "best of Craigslist" about people performing free work:

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