Is Working For Free Ever Worth It?

I’m a hypocrite. 

For years I’ve advocated to anyone who’d listen that unpaid work is tantamount to a slap in the face; that experience and exposure aren’t sufficient compensation for people whose livelihoods depend on their art. Three years ago I said:

“[B]eing paid for your work is a statement about your worth to yourself and to the project.  Directors, producers, and publishers don't work for free; neither should you.” 

Last week, Wil Wheaton perfectly summed up my feelings on the matter:

So it may shock you to know that I’ve done unpaid work. “Well sure,” you might say.  “We all did that when we were just starting our careers.” 

“That's true,” I would respond. “Except this was last week.”

Why would I do that? I'll outline my reasoning below, but I want to be absolutely clear about something first: In all but two circumstances, it is illegal for an employer to ask you to work for free.

  1. If the employer is a nonprofit entity (like Greenpeace), government agency (like your local fire department), or a religious or humanitarian organization (like church or Habitat for Humanity), you can be hired as an unpaid volunteer. Right away, 99% of most employers are ruled out.
  2. If the employer meets all six of the Department of Labor's guidelines, you can be hired as an unpaid intern. The internship concept, however, is fraught with peril these days. Many companies are shuttering their internship programs because former interns are suing them, alleging that they should've been classified - and paid - as employees. At any rate, meeting the DOL's guidelines is a high bar to clear and many companies won’t even try.

So most employers aren’t legally allowed to offer you unpaid work, but they’re going to do it anyway, so the question becomes should you do it? In the old days, I would've said NO. End of story. But life isn’t black and white and what may seem clear to us one day may be far from it the next. Ultimately, here’s how I decided that accepting the unpaid gig was worthwhile.

Factor 1: How much time would it take me to do the work?

I calculated that the work would take me between 1-3 hours per week. As busy as I’ve been lately, I knew I could find the time in my schedule.

Factor 2: Would it take time away from other income-producing activities, and if so, how much?

I figured I could do the work during evenings after my daughter went to bed, on weekends, during slow lunch periods, etc., and it wouldn’t take away from work that already produced income. I also didn’t want the work to infringe on my family-time. I can stand to watch less television anyway.

Factor 3: How much income was I really forfeiting?

After doing some research, I discovered that the average pay for this type of work is minimal. It’s certainly not something I could make a living at... the very definition of “supplemental income.” Since I wouldn’t make that much from it even if I were paid, doing it for free wasn’t a substantial loss.

Factor 4: Could I do this same work for another employer who would pay me?

Like that old saying goes, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.” Sure, theoretically I could find someone who would pay me for the same work, but comparing a theoretical reality against an actual one is a false choice. I hadn’t been offered the opportunity to do this work for a paying employer and after asking around, I didn’t find one. The only choice before me was whether to accept this particular offer.

Factor 5: Was the exposure likely to drive traffic to my blog and/or drive potential clients to my law practice?

I determined that yes, even if the traffic it drove to this blog was modest, or it didn't dramatically increase my clientele, it was still worth it... for the experience (gasp!). 

I think it's important to point out that my prerequisites for taking this gig were pretty rigid. I knew what my needs were and if they weren't met, I could just walk away. And I could be that strict because this gig wasn't going to be my sole source of income. Unfortunately, for many of you reading this, you won't have that luxury, especially at the beginning of your career where your choice is literally between working for free or not working at all.

Ultimately, my point here is that the calculation is different for everybody. What may be a good idea for me may not be for you. Maybe you genuinely do need the experience. Maybe you want to donate your work to a legitimately good cause. Or maybe you just want to do it. You always deserve to paid for your hard work, but taking an unpaid gig may have advantages that only you can see. So who am I to say it’s not the right choice? You do you. 

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA