The cost of experience: Some interns forgo paycheck to get a foot in the door

"The cost of experience: Some interns forgo paycheck to get a foot in the door" ran on the front page of the Indianapolis Star and was featured on the Star's website on July 29.

“The cost of experience: Some interns forgo paycheck to get a foot in the door” ran on the front page of the Indianapolis Star and was featured on the Star’s website on July 29.

Story by Kay Kemmet | Indianapolis Star

Writer’s note: The controversy over unpaid internships seems to come up every summer. With this summer’s news of more interns suing their former employees, I wanted to find a new way to cover this issue. Lizzette Menendez, with her dedication to her career and willingness to put in extra hours, was a great human interest entry into this hot topic.

Lizzette Menendez grinds fresh meat for Amur tigers by day and serves burgers to Indianapolis diners by night.

The 22-year-old from Fishers works 80 hours a week dividing her time among an unpaid internship at the Indianapolis Zoo and two waitressing jobs.

She says her extra work pays off with unexpected sea lion kisses and the rare opportunity to get behind the scenes with dolphins and bears, tigers and seals.

“You never know what the day holds for you,” said Menendez, who works 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week at the zoo and 6 p.m. to midnight as a waitress at an IHOP or Steak n Shake. When she speaks, Menendez routinely checks her watch, making sure she’s not late for the next activity or her next job.

Menendez willingly puts in the extra hours so she can do what she loves: work with animals. But not all unpaid interns are happy working for free.

Lawsuits over unpaid internships have made headlines recently:

  • In June, a federal district court judge in New York ruled that two unpaid interns for Fox Searchlight Pictures should have been compensated for their work on the 2010 movie “Black Swan.”
  • On June 13, two former interns filed a lawsuit against publishing company Condé Nast because the company failed to pay the interns minimum wage. The interns claimed they were paid less than $1 an hour for their work at W Magazine and The New Yorker.
  • Then on June 17, a former intern at Atlantic Records filed a lawsuit against Warner Music Group, again for unpaid wages.

But Menendez and many other interns who work for nonprofit organizations say their hands-on experience beats minimum-wage jobs. Without her internship, Menendez could have a fuller bank account, but her resume wouldn’t be as impressive.

According to federal law, an unpaid internship must satisfy a six-step test developed by the U.S. Department of Labor. The internship must benefit the intern and provide training as an educational experience, and a company cannot benefit from an unpaid intern’s work.

For not-for-profit companies, like the zoo, the language leaves room for interpretation. Historically, nonprofits haven’t been subjected to the same standards as for-profit private companies.

Indianapolis attorney Nathan Baker, who specializes in employment law, said he advises both for-profit and not-for-profit companies to pay their interns at least minimum wage unless the company can assure the internship program meets the six-step test.

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis follows the Department of Labor regulations, according to Karla McLaughlin, the museum’s intern program manager. The museum provides each intern with a mentor, a series of professional development training sessions and hands-on experience in a field that relates to their chosen career path. More than 250 students applied, and 34 were chosen to work at the museum this summer.

Pre-medicine and nursing students have come to the museum for experience working with kids. Kristina Johnson, 35, was an intern at the museum for a year, beginning last summer, while studying for her master’s degree in museum studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She researched accessibility concerns for the visually and hearing disabled.

This summer, one intern who wants to be a toy designer is creating a toy table and teaching his co-workers how to use the latest industry software.

Another intern, Martin Weiss, Indianapolis, isn’t sure what he wants to do when he graduates but said working with the collections department at The Children’s Museum this summer will give him valuable experience. Weiss spends his 40 hours a week researching open collections in museums but also learns how to work in a professional setting, handle meetings and work with a team. In the fall, Weiss, 19, will be a sophomore history and business major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I definitely have more responsibility than I thought I would,” Weiss said, “and that has been great.”

For Menendez, her work at the zoo matches her chosen career path.

Menendez’s university program requires an internship. Many students also pay university tuition for the credit hours they earn during their unpaid internships. Menendez’s full-tuition scholarship covers the cost of the credits.

But she needs to earn money now so she can work less during the school year. Menendez studies biology with a concentration in zoology at Ball State University and will graduate in 2014. She will be the first in her family to graduate from college.

Menendez said she knew from a young age that she wanted to work with animals. Last spring, she interned in the oceans water quality lab, testing water at the zoo. That internship helped her land the competitive animal care internship, working with the zoo’s marine mammals, the Amur tiger, black bear, muntjac deer and red panda this summer.

She spends much of her time cleaning animal cages and holding areas. She also is getting a minor in scuba diving and uses that skill to clean polar bear, dolphin, walrus and other marine mammal tanks. By the end of the summer, she hopes to train the animals with already learned behaviors.

But before she can do that, Menendez needs to complete a series of lessons — one way the zoo provides an educational experience. Menendez uses a syllabus-like checklist and has to complete tasks before she can move on to the next lesson.

When she began the internship in late May, Menendez learned the names and history of the animals she works with each day. She’s now working on narrating the exhibits to zoo visitors. Later, she will move on to tossing fish into dolphins’ mouths.

Gladys Morales, Menendez’s mother, is proud of her daughter’s work ethic, but she wishes her daughter didn’t need to work so much. Morales struggled at times financially as a single parent and raised Menendez to be independent. But now, even though they live together, Morales has to sit in the section of the IHOP where Menendez is working in order to see her.

“Everything in life has their sacrifices,” Morales said. “This is just a little bump in the road.”

Menendez typically works six days a week among her three jobs and tries to have one day off each week. Lately, she has worked from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. and tried to squeeze in late-night workouts at Anytime Fitness. On average, she works 16 hours a day, so when she’s not working, she struggles to stay awake.

“I’m a workaholic,” Menendez said.

She hopes her experience will put her ahead in a competi-tive job market. In a specialized market such as zoos and aquariums, internships working with animals are competitive and job opportunities are in short supply. Kristin Kraemer, volunteer services coordinator at the zoo, said there are about 50 job openings in zoos nationwide each year.

“I’m just hoping,” Menendez said, “that doing internships and working as much as possible will make me more marketable.”

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