Fighting Words

The Problem With Roberta's Call For Unpaid Interns

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Roberta’s Pizza in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood is the latest successful business to violate the Fair Labor Standards Act -- legislation that protects workers from unfair compensation and hazardous conditions -- by soliciting unpaid interns to help run its on-site garden, which is the supplier of the pizzeria’s produce.

Roberta’s posted ads on Craigslist, and elsewhere, unapologetically offering “free lunch” and “learning how to run an urban farm” as compensation for the 16-hour-a-week position.

The restaurant is one of the most popular in Brooklyn; a two-hour wait for dinner is par for the course. Without having access to its books, assuming Roberta’s can afford to compensate its workers seems fair. But the epidemic of unpaid labor that has corroded the earning power of young professionals, in most cases, has little to do with a business’ ability to pay.

Unpaid interns are commonly associated with creative fields -- publishing, fashion, film, etc., -- where hiring managers count on the company’s visibility and prestige to recruit volunteer workers.

In this sense, Roberta’s is no different than Hearst or Fox Searchlight (both facing high-ticket lawsuits from former unpaid interns.) No one would expect an aspiring chef to work for free at Ray’s Pizza. Roberta’s is merely participating in a culture that presumes the social currency of working in a supposedly “cool” job is payment enough.  

Naturally, Roberta’s call for unpaid workers has prompted the ire of some locals -- a Greenpoint blog published a photo of a flyer accusing Roberta’s of flouting labor laws and exploiting young workers. Indeed, the laws governing unpaid internships insist the position should benefit the intern, not the employer -- for Roberta’s to profit from the volunteer work described in the job post is the definition of exploitation.

But not everyone is bothered.

Grub Street, New York Magazine’s food blog, published a tone-deaf defense of Roberta’s intern search earlier this week.

...the implicit heavy lifting and other assorted intimations of labor law violations in the job posting were enough, apparently, to ignite a hipster furor of the first order, not to mention a plague of stenciled font flyers that have gone up in the neighborhood calling out the restaurant.

The flyers, which start off with a cheery "F**K YOU ROBERTA'S," promptly moves onto a mini-diatribe accusing the restaurant of "having already contributed to the damaging gentrification of Bushwick," had Gothamist readers frantically debating the definitions of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Grub Street goes on to point out, correctly, that unpaid apprenticeships -- called “stages” -- are commonplace at fine dining establishments.

In the case of Roberta's, it really all depends on what you believe restaurants have the power to do. There may be a labor department complaint in its future, but it's also very conceivable that anyone learning how to cultivate puntarelle out by the disused shipping containers on Moore Street will later go on to open some new and interesting place of their own.

Well, sure: Opening a restaurant requires a great deal of money -- typically someone else’s -- just as working for free requires some kind of subsidization. In recent years, discussions about the value of unpaid labor have finally acknowledged the class warfare the culture of non-monetary “compensation” promotes.  

As working for free is not an option for people who don’t have a financial safety net, these positions will invariably go to those who do, leaving those who cannot forgo a paycheck at a further disadvantage.

It’s discouraging that Grub Street ignored this essential reality.

Perhaps the aim was to stave off accusations of hypocrisy -- New York Magazine has an ad up for a public relations intern right now, though applicants are advised they must be able to receive college credit for the internship, which keeps it legal.

Roberta’s defense of its internship program is murky at best.

"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,” Roberta’s spokesperson, Katherine Wheelock, told DNAinfo.

Too often, the argument in support of working without pay, as demonstrated by Grub Street, is a passive one, presuming that because unpaid internships are a common precursor to entering the workforce, we all just have to grin and bear it.

But just because something is pervasive doesn’t mean it should be the accepted standard. Roberta’s is only doing what it can get away with, and what most any other business would (or does) do -- given the chance.

It should be held accountable not because a pizza costs $18, but because any thriving business that exploits workers and violates fair labor standards should have to answer for it.

 

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