Before I start this article off, let it be known that this is not an attempt to discredit or allege any illegal activity (as I am not a lawyer), it is purely opinion and applied research and statistics derived from sources other than The Odyssey. I truly believe that anything that can motivate students to express themselves and contribute to the global discussion is, in and of itself, a good thing. This article explores the nuances of American labor laws, so if you are currently exploring internship and volunteer opportunities, keep reading.
What is The Odyssey?
The Odyssey has most recently established a chapter of contributors at Fort Hays State University campus in Hays, Kansas where I currently attend school. I was enlisted in the team and quickly learned how they operate.
They claim to be “a social discovery platform committed to democratizing content creation while personalizing discovery,” according to their website. Launched in 2014, the publication distributes more than 50,000 pieces of content per month from over 14,000 contributors. The company taps into the cognitive surplus of millennials and college students across America, creating local communities that work together and publish weekly articles. Most importantly, I think they draw upon something very powerful in their marketing. Millennials deeply desire validation. We are so often told that our generation is useless, and that we waste time on smartphones, social media and Pokemon Go. The fact of the matter is, many of us are highly motivated, have bright ideas and possess skills that many of our predecessors falter with, primarily basic understandings of the internet and a predisposed advantage for quickly learning these new technologies. By valuing our voices, The Odyssey has tapped into something bigger than all of us.
One oft overlooked point of contention is how The Odyssey compensates contributors. The organization offers something almost akin to a rewards system, where users are compensated based on their monthly viewership that they achieve for the website. For example, 15,000 to 49,999 monthly views are rewarded in $15 that is deposited into your PayPal account, and users are rewarded on a sliding scale that goes up from there. Yes, I know, it isn’t about the money for most contributors – they simply want to express themselves and put their ideas out there.
Does the Odyssey take advantage of free labor?
This question arose for me when examining the compensation systems for theodysseyonline.com: is student work considered employment, internship, or volunteer work? The compensation for work is determined by the number of views garnered by a writer. The baseline pay is $15 for 15,000 views, a task that is easier said than done. Asking anywhere from 6 hours of work for an editor to 1 or 2 for contributors, achieving successful viewership appears problematic. In my experience, writing a good 500 word article takes at least 3 hours, excluding research and interviews. With that being said, my research drove me to answer the above question.
Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and many state and local wage and hour laws, the use of volunteers and interns is strictly regulated. If an individual is deemed an employee by the Department of Labor (“DOL”) or a court, the employer must pay at least the minimum wage, and overtime pay if applicable.
What is a volunteer?
Under the FSLA, a volunteer is not considered an employee in matters of public service, religious or humanitarian objectives, and without contemplation or receipt of compensation. The Department of Labor (“DOL”) takes the position that paid employees may not volunteer to perform the same type of services for their employers that they are normally employed to perform. In other words, if the work you are performing is not charitable in nature or directly helping a person in a not-for-profit manner, you should be receiving compensation. Under the FLSA, employees may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers.
What is an intern?
In regards to interns, the FLSA states that trainees or students are interns – not employees – if they meet all six of the following criteria:
- The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school.
- The training is for the benefit of the trainees or students.
- The trainees or students do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation.
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
- The trainees or students are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period.
- The employer and the trainees or students understand that the trainees or students are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.
In short, the intern experience should be educational and beneficial to the students. This benefit should be equitable to the employer and intern. The fourth criterion is particularly problematic for employers. The DOL will ask whether the productive work performed by the interns is offset by the burden to the employer from the training and supervision provided. If it is not offset – then the interns will be deemed employees.
While it’s still unclear to me just exactly how the Odyssey works out their labor classifications, I think there are things that the Odyssey does well and I think that there’s things they can do better. For one, the Odyssey takes on certain burdens for their contributors. They manage the content management system (CMS), domain, and hosting for contributor content, which for a site of this magnitude cannot be cheap. They are like YouTube, in that they allow people to freely publish in the same way YouTube functions. One thing they do extremely well is marketing. They have tapped into the millennial’s innate desire for purpose, to have a seat at the table when it comes to their ideas, and to have a voice on the world stage. Accumulating over 14,ooo contributors is no small feat for a business, and that is something to be admired.
In terms of things they lack, they do not provide much feedback or educational experience. If they are operating under the guise of an internship, I would expect much more feedback and assistance when it comes to writing articles for them – otherwise they may run into problems with the DOJ.