Crisis spurs people to work for free - good or bad?

Mon Jul 13, 2009 11:54am EDT
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By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) - With U.S. unemployment at a 20-year high, some Americans are working for free while looking for a job, but experts are split over whether it is a sign of dedication or desperation.

Unpaid job seekers can keep their resumes fresh by boosting their experience and learning new skills, experts say, but others warn businesses may take advantage of the jobless and that it is illegal for commercial companies not to pay workers.

Dana Lin, 22, is one of the 14.7 million unemployed workers in the United States. She lost her marketing job at a technology company near San Francisco in April and since then has been working for free for about five hours a week for Internet company

"Every company has thousands of people applying for each job, and I realized I needed more appeal," said Lin, a graduate of Cornell University. Since being laid off, she has applied unsuccessfully for about 50 jobs.

"In some cases companies might be getting the better end of it (by having unpaid workers)," she said. "But it's nice to have something occupy yourself with and when speaking to prospective employers it's nice to say 'I haven't just been sitting around all day, I've actually been doing something.'"

It's not only the unemployed taking on free work. Some employed people are being asked by bosses to go without pay.

British Airways last month asked its British-based employees to volunteer for up to a month's unpaid work. Some companies and U.S. state and city governments have made staff take unpaid furloughs, but some employees still work anyway to keep up or because they are worried about losing their job.

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Washington D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute, warns that while people can volunteer time for non-profit groups and government, it is illegal for commercial companies to not pay workers.   Continued...

<p>A job seeker makes a phone call to a potential employer at The Work Place, which provides comprehensive employment and career services in Boston, Massachusetts July 2, 2009. REUTERS/Brian Snyder</p>