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More skilled laborers agreeing to work for free in a bad economy

March 15, 2011 | 10:57 am

Trutanich Blame declining union power or blame the recession, but more skilled people are agreeing to work for free in this economy, according to a story in Tuesday’s Times.

More than 6 million unemployed workers in the U.S. have been out of a job for more than 27 weeks. That includes workers in fields that require a high degree of education, including attorneys, accountants and managers: About 658,000, or 40%, of workers in the professional and business services sector had been out of work for 27 weeks or more in January 2011.

Some want to work for the government –- as assistant district attorneys, probation officers, public defenders. But with city and state governments going through budget crises, there are department wide hiring freezes. Instead, offices such as the Sacramento district attorney’s office and the L.A. County probation office hire free workers during the economic downturn to do tasks that would otherwise go undone.

It’s not just the public sector, though.

"Internships are no longer restricted to students, and no longer restricted to summer," said Kathryn Edwards, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute who has studied the trend. “It’s really been during the recession that it crept up."

Many offices say their unpaid jobs are an opportunity for workers to put something on their resumes during a tough economy, and learn skills that will help them reenter the job market.

"We view ourselves as a way for would-be sportswriters to have a platform where they can be published and glean some insights," said Brian Grey, chief executive of Bleacher Report, an online sports news site with 3,000 unpaid contributors. “For a lot of people, this is a dream job."

Bleacher Report has partnerships with newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, and many of its unpaid writers’ content appears on their websites.

The prevalence of unpaid workers raises some concerns among labor advocates who say that the situation hurts the labor market. If unions had not lost so much ground in the last decade, they say, these unpaid positions would not exist.

"It reduces the demand for paid employment, when you have people come in and fill these jobs and ordinarily they’d be paid,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “It wouldn’t be happening in a normal labor market."

Most employees are subject to minimum wage guidelines, which means they must be paid a minimum wage for services they do. But trainees can be exempt from this, according to the law, and work for free. There are caveats: The Department of Labor has six criteria for determining whether unpaid interns violate those laws, including that the training should be similar to that given in vocational school, and that the trainees should not displace regular employees.

Unpaid workers who are looking for full-time work shouldn’t intern full-time because they need time to go out on job interviews, said Angie Cooper, director of vocational services at Jewish Vocational Services. Cooper advises unemployed workers to do internships to get out of the house and get experience, but says "we do coach our folks as to when it does become abusive."

"If someone is working full-time and doing exactly the same as what a full-time person is doing, that’s crossing the line," she said. "To actually replace a worker is not good."


Long-term unemployment plagues all ages, report says

Labor union stronghold rethinking its position

-- Alana Semuels

Photo: City Attorney Carmen Trutanich said his office wouldn't have a criminal division without volunteer attorneys. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times