Unpaid internships, minimum wage laws and hockey helmets

In the past few weeks, there have been high-profile legal cases on both sides of the border involving unpaid interns taking legal action against their former venue of unpaid work. (I hesitate to call them “employers.”) Recently, a US judge ruled that the interns working on Fox’s Black Swan should have been paid for their labour. Bell Canada has recently been accused of breaking labour laws with regard to its unpaid interns. This has sparked a great deal of debate, and in what follows, I will respond to the most common defence of unpaid internships: That the intern consented to it. I will not be making a legal argument, even though I will be talking about laws. I am not a lawyer. I am a philosopher by training. I will be making a moral / political / economic argument.

What is the point of a minimum wage law?

The point of a minimum wage law is that we have decided as a society that even if the job market were to deteriorate to the point where a prospective employee was willing to agree to be employed for wages lower than the minimum wage, such an agreement would not be legal. That is the point of a minimum wage law. That is what it means. It is a law. It is not a suggestion or a guideline that can be ignored if both parties agree.

The consent of both parties does not make it okay, and as I will argue below, if a person could just consent to waive her right to a minimum wage, making it optional, that would undermine minimum wage law entirely. Defenders of unpaid internships routinely point to the fact that such programmes are “voluntary,” and that the intern went into the arrangement with her eyes open, knowing that she wouldn’t get paid, and that the interns agreed to work without compensation. They argue that the consent of the unpaid internship voids her right to claim a minimum wage.

While it is true that these programmes are voluntary, consent doesn’t get Bell out of its moral obligations to its employees. The fact that the interns weren’t slaves—kidnapped and locked in an office building to work for Bell against their will—doesn’t mean that what Bell did wasn’t exploitative.

The argument boils down to the proposition that if a person decides to work for $0 per hour (or “for job experience” or “for the networking opportunities”), she has every right to do so. After all, what business is it of ours to say that she can’t spend her time the way she likes?

The economics of hockey helmets

Economists and game theorists call these sorts of things “coordination problems.” A famous example identified by Thomas Schelling is the Hockey Helmet Problem which goes as follows: In the 1970’s, NHL hockey players were allowed, but not required to wear helmets, and most did not wear them. A secret ballot of these hockey players confirmed that they would prefer to wear them, but did not because they worried about losing the competitive advantage of peripheral vision as well as a certain “tough guy” image. As Teddy Green of the Bruins said in 1969, “It’s foolish not to wear a helmet. But I don’t—because the other guys don’t. I know that’s silly, but most of the players feel the same way. If the league made us do it, though, we’d all wear them and nobody would mind.” (Schelling, “Hockey Helmets, Concealed Weapons, and Daylight Saving”, The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 17(3):381–428, 1973.)

By making helmets mandatory, NHL players no longer had to choose between their personal safety and their hockey performance. By making the helmet rule, the NHL was saying that players shouldn’t even have to make that choice and that it was wrong to even ask them to do so.

Let me emphasise—now that the rule about hockey helmets is in place, NHL players can’t just choose to play without helmets, even if they want to. If that were allowed, it would make helmet-wearing optional again, and it would undermine the point of having the rule in the first place. This is a good analogy for minimum wage.

Analogy to minimum wage

In most cases, we rightly take what a person would consent to as a pretty good proxy for that person’s own idiosyncratic values. That is to say, in most cases where a person is willing to consent to something, she has made a subjective appraisal in favour of it, according to her own values. This is why we think it’s paternalistic to impose many restrictions on what a person can consent to do with her time / money / body / etc. This intuition is what gives the “it was voluntary” argument its moral force. A person’s self-interested behaviour is usually well-aligned with her own values.

In the Helmet Problem, the self-interest of NHL players was actually working against their own values, and so, a restriction that could have been framed in terms of a loss of freedom on the part of the players (“Who are you to tell me that I have to wear a helmet?”) was actually necessary to enable the players to coordinate and allow them all to do what they wanted to do. Put in moral terms, it was wrong to even make the NHL players choose between them in the first place.

Similarly, the self-interest of unpaid interns has been used against them in a morally problematic way and coordination through regulation will best respect their values and best interests. If a company is allowed to get away with offering an unpaid internship, a prospective intern has to choose between getting job experience / networking on the one hand and supporting herself financially on the other. If anyone is allowed to get away with working for less than the minimum wage (like at an unpaid internship), the minimum wage becomes optional for everyone. This defeats the purpose of having a minimum wage law in the first place, which is to ensure no one has to compete in a job market with free labour.

By having a minimum wage law, what we are saying is that in the same way that a hockey player shouldn’t be made to choose between his personal safety and his performance, an intern shouldn’t be made to choose between getting job experience and getting paid. Further, by having a minimum wage law, we are saying that an intern doesn’t get to make that choice, even if she wants to. That’s the whole point of the law.

I still disagree with you

If you don’t want to live in a society where there is a minimum wage, that’s fine. We have a democratic process for passing legislation that allows us to change laws as we see fit, but at least in 2013, in Canada and the US, the law is that work must be compensated with a minimum amount of money per hour, whether you’d be willing to work for less or not.

How doing your taxes is like a singularity

One of the main projects of the natural sciences is to try to formalise complex physical systems in such a way that they can be used to make predictions about the future. For example, if you apply a force of x N to an object of mass y kg on a frictionless surface in a vacuum, the object in question will achieve a certain acceleration (x/y), and this will happen with predictable regularity. The discovery of such laws is one of the great aims of science, and some of the highest triumphs of the scientific age can be expressed in these terms.

In the natural sciences, the word “singularity” is used to refer to a point in a physical system after which the behaviour of the system cannot possibly be predicted. Stephen Hawking describes a singularity like a point in space-time where what follows “will not depend on anything that may have happened before.”

I feel like this accurately describes certain bureaucratic experiences I have encountered. Let’s take doing one’s taxes as an example. I feel like every year at tax time, something surprising and terrible happens, and I can never predict what. A year ago, I went in to get my taxes done by someone, and I figured I would get a generous amount of money back, as I did the year before. My personal financial situation didn’t change very drastically, I was still a student, and so I figured that at the least I would break even.

That didn’t turn out to be the case. I had to go to my financial institution and send a hefty cheque to the government. The explanation offered by the person doing my taxes was something along the lines of, “Well, you made a bit more money in the year previous, which triggered a whole lot of tax benefits, which resulted in a refund.”

I accepted that explanation, even though it doesn’t make too much sense on the surface. I would have thought that people who make more money would have to pay more tax, but that might just be me being naïve. These days, I’m convinced that there really is no way to predict beforehand what will happen, come tax-time. I’m pretty sure that even if you were to somehow produce a micro-physical duplicate of myself, with an identical financial history, we would both come out of the accountant’s office with a different result on our taxes.

So this year, I’m going into it entirely agnostic about what the outcome will be. If anyone asks if I’m expecting a big tax refund, I will explain to them that no one can know what will happen on the other side of the singularity that is doing one’s taxes.

Here are some other things that also constitute bureaucratic singularities:

Can you think of any other ones?

TA-ship for next semester

Recently, I found out that I have been offered a second TA-ship. This is great, because it means that I will have enough money to last me for the rest of the semester and a bit into the summer. Last year, I only had one TA-ship and I pretty much ran out of money at the end of the school year (which is why it was such a big deal for me to get a job right away, and why I was so panicked about it at the time).

I will be a TA for Contemporary Moral Issues. I’m not sure who the prof is, yet. I’m looking forward to TA-ing this course. I think it will be more like last year’s TA-ship than the one I’m just finishing, because the course isn’t really a “core” philosophy course—there will be many students taking the course who are not philosophy majors, just like the biomedical ethics course from last year.

Free time in grad school

Let us define “free time (0)” to mean something like “time where a person has no particular appointments or where she has no duties that need to fulfilled within that time.” So, for example, an hour break between classes would be an example of free time (0).

There is another sense of free time that is not captured by free time (0). Let us define “free time (1)” to mean something like “time where a person doesn’t have anything that she even could be doing during that time.” For a person with free time (1), that person would be able to say, “I don’t have any assignments hanging over my head right now.” Of course, for such a concept to be useful, it may be necessary to specify a domain over which it applies—so one might meaningfully say, “I have free time (1) with respect to my job, but not with respect to my chores at home.” It would be rare indeed to have free time (1) without qualification.

So for example, a student between semesters, or at the beginning of the summer break has free time (1) as far as school is concerned. And if we consider the previous example, it’s easy to see how a person might have free time (0) in an hour break between classes, but how that person will not truly have free time (1) until after she writes her final exam and hands in all her assignments, because until then, there is always more preparation and work that she could do.

When I worked at my 9-5 job this summer, I was lucky because I had a lot of free time (1) with respect to my job, even though I didn’t really have as much free time (0) as I had when I was in school. That is to say, I didn’t have much free time (0) because my job dictated that I spend the hours between 9h in the morning to 17h in the afternoon at my desk, doing particular things. I had little free time (0) in that sense. Contrarily, I had plenty of free time (1), compared to being at school. At school, really, the only time you get free time (1) is when you are between semesters (and sometimes not even then). At work, I had free time (1) from my job every night. When I left my work, the responsibilities of the office stayed at the office. I never had homework. I never had exams. There was a clear line separating my work-life from the rest of my life. In fact, as far as work was concerned, the set of hours that made up my free time (0) was exactly co-extensive with the set of hours that made up my free time (1).

Now that I’m working on my thesis full-time, I have more free time (0) than I have ever had in my life, especially now that my office hours and conferences are over for the semester. The trade-off is that I don’t ever have any free time (1). There is always something else I could be reading, or something I should be writing or a revision to my thesis that I should be working on. There is no time that I couldn’t point to on my day-timer of which I couldn’t say, “maybe I should use this time for my thesis.”

Here’s where it gets interesting: I believe both that I’ve never truly had any free time (1) while in school, and that somehow this experience of writing my thesis means that I have even less free time (1) than I had before. This is obviously a contradiction (to think that I never had something before and that now I somehow have less), so it means that my conception of free time (1) is too simple.

So let’s now re-define free time (x) as being time with no particular appointments or tasks to do, when there is up to (1-x) times a full workload’s responsibility “hanging over your head.” And x can be any real number between 0 and 1, inclusive.

Awesome. The previous definitions still hold, pretty much, and it gives us the language for describing the difference between my experience in undergrad and my experience with my thesis.

My experience in undergrad was that while I never actually did experience free time (1), I often experienced free time (1/2) or free time (3/4). I would come to a point where I only had a very few things that I could reasonably do (after all, there’s a finite number of review questions for your chemistry test) and so I wouldn’t feel the weight of the full workload’s responsibility. At the beginning of each semester in my undergrad, I would have free time (x) with a higher value for x than at the end of the semester.

With my thesis, on the other hand, even though the whole thing is divided into chapters, it’s more like one long paper than a series of short and connected ones. For example, I have to make sure that any changes I make to one chapter will agree with the other chapters. My supervisor uses the analogy of building a railroad. I have to make sure that the tracks at one end (chapter one) line up with the tracks at the other end (the last chapter). My thesis is a whole, in some ways, and so I think that’s why my experience with regard to free time is different than it was during my undergrad. I sometimes do experience a little bit of free time (1/4), though, but that’s after I submit a draft of a chapter or something.

In conclusion, right now I have lots of free time (0), no free time (1), and only little bits of free time (1/4), every once in a while.

And for the record, I did write this while procrastinating on writing my thesis.

On Thursday, I quit my job

… Effective August 1, 2010.

A lot has changed over these past few months. My original plan, coming in to the summer was to work at my job for a year, and take a year off school, or if I could manage it, work at my job and finish my thesis at the same time. As the summer went on, I quickly discovered how unfeasible that plan really was.

First off, when I went to the philosophy department to see if I could find a supervisor, I discovered that there was a professor who would have been perfect for supervising me, but she took last year off for maternity, and this year she’s on sabbatical, and so I just happened to be doing my MA on the two years that she wouldn’t be here.

So a couple weeks ago, I spoke with a professor regarding my situation, asking if it would be possible to take a year off, since that would give me a chance to recover financially and to figure out what to do for my thesis.

I had a lengthy conversation with that was emotionally cathartic, rational and productive. The prof I spoke to was my Human Research Ethics prof from last semester, who was also the acting head of the Bioethics MA programme at the time. When I told him my plan, his response was basically:

“No! Don’t take a year off! You’ll never come back!”

So we talked about that for a while. And the big thing that was keeping me from continuing in September was the money. I had done some math before the phone call, to see what my situation was, and really, I wouldn’t need that much more to make it through the school year. A second TA-ship in my second semester would do it, but I can’t count on getting one of those, necessarily.

The prof called me back a few days later with an offer of some grant money for a research assistant-ship, and he suggested that I re-arrange my thesis so that it aligns with the RA-ship. I’m going to be researching the ethics of prediction in human research.

(The term “RA” is confusing. At McGill, it means “Research Assistant,” but at UWO, where I did my undergrad, it means “Residence Advisor.”)

This is great. Now, I have a supervisor, a thesis topic, and a bit more money.

I estimate that if I take all the money from my TA-ship, my new-found RA-ship, the money in my bank account, everything I will have set aside by September, and what I expect to receive from OSAP, I will have just enough to make it through the school year, as long as there are no nasty surprises.

But I suppose, even after all that, the question still remains, Why did I quit my job?

I’m going to take the MCAT this September. I’ve been preparing for this for the last few weeks (I’m almost done orgo!), and I want to take the month before the test off, so that I can focus on my studies. I’m able to do this because I got paid for some old freelance web design work that I’ve been doing off-and-on for the last few months.

My plan for the month of August will be to get up like I normally do, at 5h, go to the gym for 6h30, be done there by 8h30 and hit the library by 9h. Then I’ll spend the day there, either working on my research, or prepping for the MCAT. I’m going to study like it’s my job.

I’m glad of the design job that I had this summer, but I’m excited about the beginning of August, too. :)

Figuring things out

So I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to be doing, come this September. I have a few options right now, and it feels like on the even-numbered days, I’ve made one decision, and on odd-numbered days, I’m of completely the opposite opinion.

To catch you up, last semester was really disappointing to me in a lot of ways. I was closer than I ever have been to dropping out of school. It got so bad, that in a counselling session with a therapist at McGill, I explored the question of how bad an academic programme would have to be before one would be justified in suing McGill for one’s tuition back.

After I stopped being so bitter about that, I ended up with a job, and a pretty decent one, too. It’s close to where I live, the money is good, and I get to be creative at work. I’m working as a designer at a marketing company. It’s an excellent job, and I’m glad for it. I’m still in a sort of probationary period that will last 3 months, where they’re still deciding whether they want to keep me, and I’m still deciding whether I want to stay there.

I’ve been enjoying living with the privileges of a regular paycheque. I don’t have to worry at the end of the month about whether or not I will have enough money to cover rent. This is a step up from the last semester. They ran out of TA-ships before they got to me, and so money was very tight, and I had a spreadsheet going that calculated, based on my previous expenses, how long I had until my money ran out.

So when I landed this job, my first thought was that I could finally relax a bit. And I have been! Things have been pretty decent of late. I’m enjoying things being stress-free, by comparison to this last year.

One of the options that I am considering is taking a year off school to de-stress, pay off some debt and enjoy not having to worry about money or school. There’s a few reasons I’m considering this:

I don’t think that I’ll get much by way of student loans for this year, and I have no reason to believe that I’ll get a second TA-ship this year either, which means I’ll be in a much worse financial situation than even last year, unless something unexpected and good happens.

To make it through the year, I’d only need a few thousand dollars more. You wouldn’t think that would be so hard to get, but it’s easier to get a full-time job than it is to get a job, even part-time, that is compatible with being a student.

I could probably make it through the year if I knew I was going to get a second TA-ship, or if there was an RA-ship (Research Assistantship) on the horizon somewhere, but things are looking grim.

I’m going to apply for OSAP anyway, even though I am sceptical that I will get anything from them. And I’m going to send out some emails to profs to see if there’s any RA-ships that I can do during the school year. I don’t need a lot of money. I just need enough to get through the second semester.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep my options open as best I can. If I think I can make it through the year financially, I will give notice that I’m quitting my job when the probationary period ends.

Does anyone know any profs at McGill who need research assistants who know philosophy and medical science? I can write, think critically, closely read dense papers, and I know my way around a pipette.

The job search is over

One of the fun things about looking for jobs on the internet is that often the people who are hiring like to remain anonymous. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been applying to a bunch of jobs that looked vaguely related to the skills that I have, without knowing clearly where I was applying, or what job exactly they were looking to fill. What this means is that I’ve had a number of phone calls recently that began as follows:

[Ring ring]

Other person: “Hi, is Benjamin there?”

Me: “Speaking.”

Other person: “Hi, my name is [person’s name]. You recently applied for a job that was posted on [website].”

Me: “Oh, that’s certainly possible.” …

The fun continues into the interview, because I often have no way of knowing which job advertisement corresponds with which phone call I receive, and so I don’t even know which job I am interviewing for until partway through the interview.

And I wasn’t too picky about which jobs I applied for, so sometimes the job is quite surprising. At one point, I ended up in an interview for a job as one of those street-marketing people who walks around downtown Montréal trying to get other people to sign up to sponsor a World Vision child or give to the Red Cross. The guy interviewing me asked if I thought I could handle approaching random strangers and talking to them.

After so many years of involvement with Campus for Christ, I think I probably could have handled it.

As exciting as a summer of evangelising for World Vision or the Red Cross would have been, I was offered another job that I’m actually looking forward to: I’m going to be working as a web designer for a company that makes websites for small businesses. I’ll be designing custom WordPress or Drupal themes, and working out a system for managing clients’ sites.

And it gets better: They’re going to pay me on a regular basis. I am going to have a regular paycheque.

On Friday, when the deal was finalised, I went out to the Metro supermarket across the street and bought enough brand-name groceries to fill my refrigerator.

I’m living the high life. :)

Summer job

CV 2010

I’ve been looking for a summer job for the past couple months. I sent out approximately 120 emails to different professors, asking if they had research assistantships available for the summer.

In short order, I received approximately 120 emails from these professors, all telling me that they had no work for me. I don’t mind getting rejection messages, to be honest. At least that way I don’t spend much time getting my hopes up or waiting to hear back from them.

Next, I signed up on a number of job-search websites. There’s one that sends me daily emails with jobs sorted by criteria that I choose, like “student jobs in Montréal.” Another one lets you save a job search as an RSS feed and subscribe to it using your newsreader, so that whenever there are new jobs that match your search, they show up there.

I haven’t totally given up hope on having a “real people job” this summer, but things are looking pretty grim. My French isn’t super-fantastic, (although for most purposes it is passable) so I can’t say that I’m bilingual, which means that I’m not qualified even to work at Tim Horton’s or Walmart.

I’m going to continue to look for, and apply for any job that I’m even close to qualified for, but in the meantime, I’m going to start to focus my efforts more on my web design business. I’m gonna finish up a few lingering jobs that I’ve been working on during the school year, and then try to find some new clients. I looked at my budget, did some math, and discovered that I don’t need more than a few new jobs to make it through the summer, until OSAP comes in again for next year.

My action plan, moving forward is that I will work my network of contacts, re-design and re-launch www.bgcarlisle.com, put some ads on Kijiji and maybe even pay for some Google ads.

And if worst comes to worst, I can always resort to medical experiments or selling non-essential body parts on the black market, right?


Something that one of my students drew for me
Something that one of my students drew for me

Being a TA is one of the best parts of grad school. In the class that I’m a TA for, the first essay of the year was due last Monday. I guess I must have done a good job emphasising good “signposting” in essay-writing in my conferences, because this week, one of my students came up to me and handed me this hand-drawn cartoon that she made while writing her essay.

Some of the other grad students say I should put it up somewhere in the philosophy grad student office.

By the way, I do realise that it’s been over a month since I posted last. Sorry guys! My life is pretty complicated right now, and I don’t want to blog about it yet, because there are people who I need to talk to in person, before I start letting the whole world know what’s up with me. I expect that sometime this week, I will resume regular posting again.

The job interview

St Mary's hospital, where I had my job interview
St Mary's hospital, where I had my job interview

On the first full day that I was in Montréal after moving here, I had a job interview. I joked that it was a shocking thing that I actually had an interview for a job in my field, since I am a philosophy major.

Actually, this job is even more specific to my area of study, since it is a job in the field of bioethics and I am studying bioethics.

The job is for a part-time position, co-ordinating a study in a hospital very near my house. The hours are flexible and it seemed perfect. I enjoyed speaking to the man and the woman who conducted the interview, and I think I would be a good candidate for the position.

Over the weeks since then, I occasionally got word from people that I had asked to be my references, saying that they had been contacted by a professor at McGill. That was an encouraging sign.

On Wednesday the 12th, I heard back from them by email. I had forgotten to tell them that my phone number changed. Oops! They told me to give them a call on Thursday. When I called on Thursday, I found out that I was not offered the job, but that they might have work for me at another time. The man who called me stressed that when he said that he might have work for me later, he didn’t mean that in the dissmissive or condescending way that it is usually meant when potential employers have to reject applicants. He actually seemed serious about it.

I don’t feel too bad about the fact that I didn’t get the job. The guy who was offered the job was finishing his PhD, and so he was super-qualified for the position. At any rate, it might be for the best, since I got a TA-ship, and I don’t know how heavy the work-load is.