Culture

Roberta’s Pizza and the Tricky World of Unpaid Internships

Culture

Roberta’s Pizza and the Tricky World of Unpaid Internships

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In the last couple days, Roberta’s Pizza, a popular NY establishment in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood has been feeling the heat. The eatery is in a deep dish of disdain after—thanks to an old fashioned telephone pole flyer rant—their Craigslist ad for interns hit DNAInfo.com, the Gothamist, and everywhere in between. You see, Roberta’s is looking for interns who can commit 16 unpaid hours a week for three months to work on the restaurant’s farm and “help maintain our bee hives, harvest honey, build and maintain the compost, help with carpentry projects, such as building planter boxes and hoop houses.” If that sounds like actual labor to you, well that’s because it is.  And the only form of compensation offered here consists of “learning how to run an urban farm” and a free lunch. If that doesn’t make Roberta’s owners look like tightwads already, here’s the kicker: lunch is pizza. Every day.

When the Gothamist grilled Roberta’s on the issue, the restaurant had this to say:

“Interns sign on—voluntarily—to learn about planting and growing edible plants in an urban environment and to help share that knowledge with the surrounding community by, for example, helping to give educational tours of the garden to school groups.”

Although the U.S. Department of Labor offers a test by which you can gauge whether your unpaid internship is legitimate (see it here), there’s always been a grey area here. And anytime someone brings up the subject of exploitative internships, there’s no shortage of misers ready and willing to preach that “learning” to fetch a cup of coffee, sweep the office, or file paperwork is an “education” in the rigor, tedium, and general ass-kissage of the workplace. But there’s a dark side to the unregulated spread of internships.

Take the case, detailed in February on Mother Jones, of two female interns who were asked last summer to take part in a promotional video for FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group and super-PAC. The video depicted a sequence in which the group’s executive vice president woke up and walked down the hall to find the interns, dressed up as a panda and Hillary Clinton, performing oral sex on each other. That isn’t just an abuse of interns, it borders on sexual harassment. But that’s just the kind of thing that happens when unpaid members of our workplaces are viewed as expendable. Indeed, their very success depends on their willingness to bite the bullet and do everything—and anything—they’re asked to, with cheerful grins pinned to their eager faces.

The sheer volume of students and recent grads eager to give their labor away for free means that even your dog could get an intern if it wanted to. A 2012 CBS story found a Philadelphia college student who responded to a unpaid marketing internship only to discover that she was being asked to make business calls from the bedroom of her employer, who still lived with his parents. But at least her boss probably genuinely couldn’t afford to pay her. In December 2012, Charlie Rose and his production company settled a class action lawsuit that accused him of substituting employees with interns and having them do menial and janitorial work. The 190 former interns received $250,000, a payment that translates into a minimum hourly wage.

That Roberta’s is transferring the sometimes exploitative logic of unpaid internships to what seems to be basic labor is a step in a dangerous direction (what’s next, unpaid produce picking internships? Fast food industry internships?). But read up on this restaurant and you’ll see why this unpaid internship is doubly egregious: A pie at Roberta’s can run you $18 and you’re liable to wait over two hours for a table. The Clintons ate here last year and the restaurant even merited a Michelin mention. These guys aren’t hurting—they’re making a killing off their pizzas. Isn’t it only fair to give their interns a slice of the pie?