The De-Paying of America

Ever more paid jobs are being converted to unpaid ones.

Posted Aug 06, 2014

Guess this person’s salary: He is Assistant Clinical Professor at one of America's most prestigious medical schools. His salary is $0.

In recent years, I’ve observed an acceleration of jobs that have been converted from paid to unpaid or pittance-paid: jobs to internships, jobs to volunteer work, full-time well-paying secure jobs to temporary, unbenefitted contract work.

Why the acceleration in de-paid jobs?

Certainly one reason is the increased non-salary costs of employing people: Workers Compensation claims, the costs of the Family Leave Act, Affordable Care Act, and Americans with Disabilities Act, defending against increased employee legal claims, etc. Many employers do everything possible to avoid hiring paid workers.

Another reason is the decline of unions. America seems to have concluded that unions may not be a net plus. Sure, they ensure good wages, benefits, and retirement packages for their members. But public support for unions has dwindled because of, for example, stories of teachers’ unions protecting burned-out teachers, auto-worker unions providing so much job security that American cars are much more trouble-prone than Japanese cars while the assembly line workers get pensions that white-collar workers can't  even dream about. Alas, the declining power of unions renders employees without a collective voice to battle employers willing to employ ever more people at below even the puny minimum wage.

Why are employers getting away with de-paying jobs?

Most people quietly accept employers de-paying so many positions. I’m always surprised at how docile and compliant many workers are—willing to, for example, go through rounds of interviews in which they end up giving the employer lots of useful advice for free. Here are some reasons why they would work for little or nothing:

  • Would-be employees are desperate for experience. It seems every well-paying job ad requires years of experience. If you can’t get it paid, you take it unpaid.
  • Prestige. Some people will work for nothing, either to build their resume or because it feels good to be working for a prestigious organization. Indeed, today at many prestigious media outlets, many if not most writers are paid below minimum wage, often nothing.
  • Pleasure. Many people derive sufficient pleasure from their work and are supported by a spouse, parent, and/or the government, so they’re willing to work for free.

Solutions, anyone?

My normal rule in writing an article is, “Only pose a problem for which you can offer a solution.” I’m breaking that rule here: I can’t envision a realistic scenario in which the trend to de-paying positions would reverse. Yet it’s important enough of a problem that I feel it’s worth writing about. Suggestions, anyone?

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.