There seems to be a lot of discussion in business circles (and legal circles) today about unpaid interns. Here in LA a class action lawsuit has been filed by unpaid interns seeking pay for all the time he worked without pay, damages and an order barring use of unpaid interns at one of the movie companies. According to the way I read it, the lead plaintiff was studying to become a film editor and took the unpaid internship hoping to get experience that would give cachet to his CV. Instead, his duties for the most part were those of the ubiquitous "gofers."
The LA Times this morning published a list of typically unpaid show business internships, according to their own research:
Cleaning the office kitchen
Compiling press clippings
Taking lunch orders and picking up take-out
Assembling office furniture
Booking flights and limousines for actors
Checking scripts to make sure there are no missing pages.
Reading that made me laugh. It reminded me that when I was hired as an executive secretary for one of the vice-presidents of a local company, all of the above were either listed in my job description or expected of me. Granted, that was a long time ago – almost 40 years, to be exact. Women's lib had already come; Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique had made its impact and moved on. But the mindset of men running companies located in smallish towns had not been touched. And as far as the highest level clerical jobs went, we were still "private" secretaries, executive or not, and if we wanted a job, we didn't quibble about our job description.
Yes, we had some status within the company, that status being privy to confidential financial information. We were on the payroll as exempt employees (which actually was a mistake because we were miles away from having the authority required for that position) and we did get to sit in our own little offices or in an executive wing, out of the milieu of the departmental gossip factory.
But there truly were a few chores we had to do that were definitely non-secretarial: fill up the gas tank on the boss's car, clean out the car ashtrays, and bring the bosses hot, fresh coffee whenever they asked. And sometimes at closing time we had to mix a drink for them at the executive bar if they were working late. That, and picking up lunches to bring in for the bosses, were truly "gofer" stuff.
I did not ever think I would end up as a secretary. The woman who trained me (the President's secretary) had been a secretary her whole working life; it had been her goal through school and she truly was the best teacher I could ever have had. She had this job because she had worked and studied hard to get to this point. I took this job because I had been recently divorced and was desperate for a job that would provide me with some security, as well as medical benefits. I had never worked full time before, and when I applied for the job I had been working part time at a secretarial service, mainly running a small printing press that produced service club bulletins. The only qualification I could offer for full time employment was a good work ethic, a good brain, and a fast typing speed. I was hired at less than the job was advertised for because I really didn't have the qualifications they specified, but the VP who offered me the job said he'd take a chance on me, for which I was, and always will be, very grateful.
I also learned that I didn't much like being a secretary, even though I was good at it. I never could quibble about whether what I was asked to do was or wasn't in my job description. Even doing what I would consider somewhat demeaning things – like emptying ashtrays in the boss's car – I did it as I was asked; it simply was one of the least pleasant parts of the job. I stayed three years, and then moved on, a company requirement because I married one of the executives!
The last job I had before I retired had a perfect structure for me. Although my title was Administrative Secretary, I was basically the only "clerical" person on staff but I had a great deal of authority and finally requested (and received) a clerk who was a terrific help.
Getting back to the Hollywood film company's dilemma, I suspect the Department of Labor and the legal profession are going to play with this paid/unpaid internship problem for a while but ultimately will make some adjustments that might not make everybody happy but that will help people know ahead of time what they are getting into when they sign on the dotted employment line! They may even come up with a new and better name for a "gofer."