Production work on set
After I graduated from theatre school I took a job as an intern for a small film production company in NYC. The woman who hired me was a regular at this West Village tavern where I was a backup waitress. The small tavern had many actresses on staff, who were often quickly running out for auditions and call-backs. I was the understudy waitress who was fumbly and apologetic with order mix-ups, but always on time and amusing to the cast of regular patrons.

After a month or so of back-up waitressing, a customer, whom I knew only as “gin and tonic, club sandwich, no chips.” struck up a conversation with me after her lunch date was a no-show. She told me about her production company, the kinds of projects they had, and how she was always struggling to find people with great work ethic to help behind the scenes.

Then she said the attention grabber: “I’m just so surprised I can’t keep anyone around when these gigs are paying so well. I’m talking at least $200 a day!”

I was making, roughly, $70 a night as a waitress. From that money I needed to tip out the bartender and the busboys. That left me with a take home of about $60. That really wasn’t working out so well for me. Two hundred dollars sounded amazing. This sounded like a golden opportunity hovering in the air just waiting for me to seize it.

“Are you looking for people now?” I asked. She wrote her address on a napkin and we agreed I would stop by her offices in the morning so she could properly interview me.

I was immediately hired the next day as a girl Friday/ production assistant, and we instantly jumped into a shoot for a major commercial. It was thrilling to be involved with production and watch the process. Over the next couple of weeks I worked on several different commercials and training videos, short films and international magazine shoots. I genuinely loved coming to set every day, learning, and being a part of the energy of creative work.

Dresden on Set
At the end of the month I helped my boss fill out the payroll for everyone. I was excited to get to my name and get a peek at the breakdown at my hours worked and how much I would be taking home. When we got to the last name of my initial she kept on going. Huh. Something started to get me nervous. Then I thought, well maybe she just doesn’t want to do MY check while I am sitting right next to her.

The next day I mailed all the payroll checks. There was not an envelope for me. As I was working on another task I directly asked, “Where is my check?”

I can still the remember the look on her face. The “shock”, the “horror”. She walked over to where I was copying scripts for the next week’s perfume commercial. I could see her preparing a dandy of a speech and my stomach turned. Something about the way she placed her hands folded in front of her chest, the way she tilted her head, I was in for a “life lesson” and I wasn’t going to like it.

What I learned that morning was that while I had been hired after a conversation detailing how much money I could make. she had absolutely zero intention of ever paying me. I had worked four days a week for an entire month and had calculated a massive paycheck the entire time. Zero was not anywhere near what I was expecting.

I was in disbelief that anyone could have taken advantage of me this way. I was not eloquent or brave in the moment. I cried, I said I needed to call my mother, and I collected my purse and I left. And I never went back.

There was a great deal of shame and mortification around this job experience. I turned in my apron at the tavern so I would never see this woman or her friends again. I was certain I was the idiot and that people were laughing at me. HA! She thought she was going to get paid for working!! HA HA HA!

It was only many years later when I was working in Los Angeles with an established production company that I truly realized how utterly wrong and cruel my first production job had been. I sat down with every assistant or intern and outlined every single part of the job with them. I felt so lucky to have such eager and enthusiastic help and couldn’t imagine doing anything to dampen their creative spirit. I also learned the hard way through this experience to advocate for myself, and to make compensation agreements clear.

My Lessons Learned:

  • Always discuss what is expected of you in a new job before you begin.
  • Always find out what compensation (if any) there will be, and when you should expect it, before you agree to take a position, and certainly before you begin working.
  • Listen to any internal anxiety or doubts you may have about compensation for an employment arrangement, and speak up when you feel something isn’t right
  • If possible, do more research about a potential place of employment to identify any issues with compensation.
  • If possible, propose a trial period with an evaluation after a week or two weeks.

I do think there are good things to be learned from unpaid internships, but everyone needs to be on the same page with that arrangement. A few times in my job that was not a job I felt like something was off, but I never spoke up. I was probably worried of overstepping. I know now what a mistake that was.

Images Used: Shutterstock, author’s photo
This post is part of BlogHer’s Women @ Work editorial series, made possible by AFL-CIO.

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