Pray I Don't Alter It Any Further

So a bunch of bloggers agree to write for the HuffPo, a profit-seeking venture, for free.  The HuffPo gets bought by another profit-seeking company, though this one is less successful in shrouding its financial goals in a cloud of feel-good progressivism.  So the bloggers get mad.  But instead of just quitting, they are actually suing the HuffPo for back wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

A few observations:

  • I blog for free at Forbes.  It's not like the arrangement was hard to figure out.  They get some free content, I get some exposure and a bit of cache from being associated with Forbes.   Seemed like a good deal to me.  When it ceases to be so, I will quit.
  • The fact that everyone agreed to the deal in advance and it was completed by both parties to their mutual self-interest is NOT a defense under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  I have employees who beg to work for free all the time (e.g. they have a disability arrangement that allows no outside income).  I have to tell them no.  Any defense from the HuffPo will come through convincing a court that the writers were somehow exempt or not actually employees.
  • This same problem arises with internships as well as in my work.  In short, people sometimes value non-monetary aspects of jobs that are not given any credit in the FLSA.  My son would love to have a good summer job and for the right one would work under minimum wage for the experience.   Even the experience of showing up on time, functioning in an organization, working in a hierarchy, etc.  are important skills those outside of the work force gain from obtaining.  (In an interesting parallel to this, probably the most important skill I am gaining at Forbes is simply writing to a regular weekly deadline.  It's harder than it seems from the outside).

In short, I would say that these folks are utterly without personal honor for filing the suit, but in the current state of labor law they potentially have a case.  How sad that would be.  And what would be next?  A class action suit by product reviewers at Amazon for back wages?


  1. Vake:

    Nice Star Wars reference. And with the Firefly reference on the prior post, I'm beginning to think you're a sci-fi nerd.

  2. Bill:

    We live in a free country. Volunteering is Good. I am free to volunteer.

    I don't think those words mean what they think they mean.

    As for Amazon reviews...when you do a lot of them, and they are useful, you get invited by Amazon to get free stuff to review. Is the free stuff income? Are the reviews work? Who exactly is taking advantage of the other? Lets hope those questions are never answered.

  3. Mesa Econoguy:

    Yes, but this is good news: profit-driven (i.e. greedy) leftist hypocrites cannibalizing each other.

  4. John Anderson:

    Cache != cachet

  5. Micah:

    I'm with Mr. Anderson.

  6. Hasdrubal:

    Wonder if there is any research out there on whether and how much part time jobs on the resume affect pay in a person's first full time job.

  7. Billy Beck:

    "writing to a regular weekly deadline. It’s harder than it seems from the outside."

    Be careful. A very wise and experienced man once pointed out to me that anyone writing to any sort of regular deadline is just about naturally bound to say something quite ridiculous, sooner or later, simply from the imperative alone.

  8. Evil Red Scandi:

    It is sad, and as you've pointed out there are so many legally problematic issues with free labor that for most businesses it's just not worth it. In one of our businesses we've had recent college grads literally (and I mean literally) begging to work for free so that they could have something on their resumes - they were competing against experienced, unemployed workers and their "regular job" applications weren't even getting looked at. We turned them away - the legal advice we got told us the exposure was potentially far more costly than the very marginal gains we'd make from training a bunch of n00bs in exchange for free work (and the high minimum wage, worker's comp, SUI, etc. made hiring them completely out of the question).

    But in AOL / HuffPo's case it's also pretty funny. It's one thing to get free work from somebody, and it's kind of fun irony if you're making tons of money (like Huffington was) on the backs of committed lefties whose heads would literally explode if they had a clue. Of course, being committed lefties, they were completely freaking clueless until Huffington cashed out. It's funny that AOL bought into this business model - the response from the bloggers was completely predictable, and at least one of them is a labor organizer to boot. I mean, did anyone involved not smell this coming a mile away? It's hilarious if they did and it's even more hilarious if they didn't.

    This is some of the best free entertainment we're going to get this year, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the sweet, sweet schadenfreude.

  9. Torontonian:

    A friend of mine who had just finished his MBA (and paid its hefty tuition), was determined to get a job doing what he loved... being an investor at a hedge fund.

    Unfortunately his timing sucked. Due to the escalating credit crisis, hedge funds just weren't hiring (most were seeing their assets shrink because of market losses and/or redemptions), and raising the necessary capital to start his own hedge fund wasn't at all an option.

    So, he offered a top hedge fund manager 6 months of absolutely free work, with the option of hiring him full-time if the manager liked his work. The manager took the risk-free offer, my friend eventually got hired on and is still working there today (likely making MUCH better money than his classmates who are still plugging away in the lower rungs of investment banks and management consulting firms).

  10. Designer Wholesale Handbags:

    Clearly you are paying attention to the details.

  11. farberware:

    Its better to earn doing any job rather then writing voluntarily at the blogs.

  12. mojo:

    "Cachet", not "cache" - a good smell as opposed to a secret stash.

  13. Fred Z:

    Gents, we have all been commenting here for some time. Coyote has been unjustly enriched by our pearls of wisdom, our deep wisdom and our amusing word plays.

    I shall commence a class action immediately.

    Who's in?

  14. Fred Z:

    By which I meant that I hope some of the more prolix commenters join the HuffPo action by claiming against both the current plaintiffs and HuffPo.

    This will truly expose the ludicrous nature of the original claim.

    It will, won't it? Surely there is no court so stupid ...

    Oh-oh. Mrs. Huffington is verpfuscht.

  15. JVDeLong:

    Tasini, who is the lead plaintiff against HuffPo, was also the name plaintiff in Tasini v NYT in 2001, in which SCOTUS ruled that the NYT could not make the earlier work of its free lancers available on its website without getting permission individually. Of course, the costs of getting such permission would have been quite high, so the upshot was that the material was removed, which was certainly not in the interests of the writers themselves. (Including me - I had published a couple of pieces in the NYT which I would have liked to have freely available.) But Tasini won his ideological point.