Boston 2024 — the group leading Boston’s seemingly doomed bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics — has been dogged by opponents’ claims that it doesn’t play by the rules and doesn’t do its homework. The group’s baffling decision to use unpaid intern labor — which may violate Massachusetts law — certainly doesn’t help. The unpaid nature of the Boston 2024 internship program first came to light at public meeting in Allston on March 31. In response to a question about Boston 2024’s hiring plans, Boston 2024 spokeswoman Nikko Mendoza cheerfully volunteered that people were so eager to work for the bid that many interns had applied who were willing to work for free. At a June 1 public meeting in Arlington, Mendoza confirmed that Boston 2024’s internship program is unpaid. Archived online postings suggest the same thing.
According to the Boston Business Journal, Boston 2024 has raised approximately $14 million in cash and in-kind donations since January 2014. The group is spending most of its money as soon as it comes in— “sign[ing] a contract with Interpublic Group for marketing and communications... valued at $1.3 million per year” among other large consulting contracts. Boston 2024’s drunken-sailor spending spree on high-priced consultants makes its decision to pinch pennies by using unpaid intern labor a puzzling one. Ultimately, Boston 2024 may incur far more in legal bills than it ever would have spent on paying its interns minimum wage.
Boston 2024 is technically a so-called 501(c)(3) non-profit (although, as I’ve written elsewhere, its compliance with IRS rules for non-profits is questionable). Thus, when deciding to use unpaid labor, Boston 2024 may have had in mind federal standards that permit non-profit organizations to use unpaid interns. According to the Department of Labor, under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, “[u]npaid internships in the public sector and for non-profit charitable organizations, where the intern volunteers without expectation of compensation, are generally permissible.”
What Boston2024 appears to have forgotten — or chosen to ignore — is that Massachusetts law is stricter than federal law and does not provide an exemption for non-profits.
I’m a Massachusetts-barred lawyer who does some employment litigation, but don’t take my word for it. Just last Fall, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly published an article by David Henderson, a partner at Boston’s Nutter, McLennen & Fish, who has spent decades defending large corporate employers. Henderson warned employers that “Massachusetts law on interns [is] even tougher than federal rules.” Among other things, unlike federal law, “the Massachusetts standard for when interns must be paid minimum wages applies across the board, in both the for-profit and the non-profit sectors.”
To be sure, Massachusetts’ Minimum Fair Wage Law does contain an exemption for people being “trained under rehabilitation or training programs in charitable, educational or religious institutions.” But, as Henderson points out, to qualify for the training program exemption under Massachusetts law, an internship program must satisfy a six-part test used by the federal Department of Labor in evaluating for-profit internship programs. And an unpaid internship program will fail that test — and thus violate Massachusetts law — unless “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantages from the activities of the trainees or students, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded” (emphasis added).
Boston 2024 did not reply to a list of questions sent to its press office regarding the internship program. But a LinkedIn search shows that the group currently employs at least fifteen interns. Their titles include “Social Media Intern,” “Development and Fundraising Intern,” “Event Management Intern,” and “Community Engagement Intern.”
Those interns seem to spend a lot of time pushing pro-Olympics messaging on Twitter and working at Boston 2024 marketing events. This is all work that provides an immediate advantage to Boston 2024. And given Boston 2024’s pathetically feeble social media efforts, it clearly has nothing useful to teach its Millennial interns.
Therefore, by failing to pay its interns for work that provides an immediate advantage, Boston 2024 is likely running afoul of Massachusetts’ Minimum Fair Wage Law.
Attorney General Maura Healey has received glowing press for her efforts in pushing Boston 2024 to disclose information about its donors and spending. It remains to be seen whether her office’s Fair Labor and Business Practices Division — which has the power to seek civil penalties for violations of Massachusetts wage laws — will be equally firm in holding Boston 2024 to account.
Legal issues aside, Boston 2024’s use of unpaid intern labor raises serious questions about its commitment to fundamental principles of social equality.
Dr. Michelle Kweder, a lecturer at the Simmons School of Management, has been a vociferous critic of Boston 2024’s decision not to pay its young interns. She has repeatedly raised the issue at community forums.
Kweder explains that this issue is important to her because “[u]npaid internships contribute to a cycle of income inequality.” In Kweder’s experience, “the students most in need of experience,” including “low-income, of color, women, and first generation college students,” have to “forgo unpaid internships for low-wage work to support themselves and their families. Then at graduation, they lack the robust resumes that more privileged students have and are at a disadvantage in the marketplace.”
“Whose intellect, labor, and life experience matters in the minds of Boston2024’s so-called leaders?,” Kweder asks. “What message are they sending to the young people they purport to be supporting through this bid process?”
Kweder is not alone in highlighting the troubling impact of unpaid internships on low-income students who cannot afford to work for free. A lengthy piece in Boston Globe Magazine last year noted that, “[c]ritics have long had a problem with the inherent elitism of the system — that it is a luxury only accessible to families with means.” The Globe Magazine piece quoted, among many other critics, Tom Landy, director of the McFarland Center at Holy Cross, who acknowledged that unpaid internships are “one of the engines of inequity in America.”
The very first question on Boston 2024’s FAQ page asks “What are the benefits of the Games for the City of Boston?,” and the very first answer that Boston 2024 gives is “Jobs.” Yet, Boston 2024’s use of unpaid intern labor calls into serious question its commitment to good jobs and its commitment to ensuring that jobs are equally available to all.
Since its inception, Boston 2024 has struggled to combat the perception that it is, in effect, a shadow government of rich white guys, by rich white guys, for rich white guys. (Boston 2024’s former chairman, John Fish, was previously named the 33rd wealthiest Bostonian by Boston Magazine. The new chairman, Steve Pagliuca, was number 35). If Boston 2024 wants to show that it’s truly committed to improving the lot of all Bostonians — and not simply lining the pockets of wealthy developers — paying its interns a living wage would be a good place to start.
The attorney general’s office has not yet responded to requests for comment. We also welcome comments from any Boston 2024 interns and will update this story if we hear from them.
Update: Shortly after this story was posted and widely shared on Twitter, two Boston 2024 interns posted a Twitter update stating, "Out and about... running errands! #WeLoveBeingInterns #Boston2024." Of course, as Michelle Kweder notes, much of the harm caused by unpaid internship programs is inflicted on poor students who cannot afford to work for free. So the fact that Boston 2024's interns don't mind unpaid labor hardly means it's a good idea. Moreover, "interns who run errands... provide an immediate advantage" to their employer, so this is yet more evidence of Boston 2024's non-compliance with Massachusetts labor laws.