update: employer will only reimburse interview travel expenses if I accept their offer

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer who applied for a summer teaching job and was told the employer would only reimburse her interview travel expenses if she accepted the job? Here’s the update.

I’m the college student who wrote in about a teaching summer job. Thank you for your advice, and all the commenters for their input! I wanted to give you an update of what went down and, as I have a feeling I may get internet-stoned in a minute, preface this email by saying that I did indeed take your advice seriously and assess my options with this organization and their proceedings carefully.

When my letter was published, I had already gone to the weekend-long interview-seminar. In hindsight, I remembered that there was already something minor red-flaggy during the application process besides the unreasonable time investment, namely that the organization explicitly asked for a headshot to be submitted. Although having a photo of yourself on your application is common in the country I live in (not USA), especially young people and less traditional industries don’t do so anymore (because it’s irrelevant to your skill set and your looks shouldn’t at all determine if you get an offer, etc.). Anyways, I brushed it off as ‘weird but whatever’ and went to get headshots, but reflecting on the whole process, it just added another layer of questionable requirements.

About a week after you published the letter, I received an offer from the organization. Because of all the issues you – and the commenters – raised, I was reluctant to do any work with them. However, they were short with applicants for another position that I didn’t apply for initially and offered me that one, too. It was better paid and would only take three weeks, with the same kind of work but under different circumstances (group to teach, location, etc). For context, as this came up in the comment section: the salary they offer for any positions is always fixed. The listing I applied for seemed to pay not too bad originally, but they kept adding on duties which made the compensation sink far below minimum wage when broken down to the hours needed to accomplish the tasks. Because these additional duties were apparently just ‘common sense’ (their words, not mine), they weren’t included in the job description and offer or considered for pay. The new position included the same duties, but also more pay, which made it worthwhile for me.

As the new offer’s pay was good enough that I decided to go for it under specific terms. First, I made sure that all of my travel and accommodation costs would be covered. For readers who didn’t catch up with all the comments: the teaching takes place in different places around the country, and I had hoped to get placed near where I (or friends or family of mine) live but wasn’t. However, the organization only provides a very, very limited housing budget (about $250/month, independent of the area you get placed in – in the country I live in, it’s very hard to find a place for $250/month, and impossible in any larger town or city, which is where most people were placed. Additionally, the $250 are also supposed to cover commuting costs from the rented place to your actual workplace, which is just not doable). Summer-jobbers were expected to cover expenses that exceed this budget, which I was not willing to do because I believe that if you hire people to do jobs hundreds of miles away from where they live, you should provide them with a place to stay that they don’t have to pay for themselves. Especially given that they hire college-students exclusively.

By the way, there were some other curiosities in the contract/job duties, for example that there would be no pay when you’re sick (which is illegal where I live, and they would get in major trouble if you took them to court for it) or that us teachers are supposed to host meetings with parents, including a BBQ with both parents and students (36 people in total), but without being given any budget (?? I guess we’ll have air-burgers with invisible hotdogs, then). Anyways, they found me a shared apartment to stay in, which I was fine with, and sent out letters to the families asking them to bring their own food and beverages to the meetings and BBQ, which was also fine with me. As for the no-pay-when-sick-clause, I thankfully don’t get sick often and also have legal protection, so I knew I would be safe there. Less high-stakes yet noteworthy, they also sent out emails at very odd hours (hand-crafted ones, not automated messages).

What really irked me, though, is that they told us (after signing the contract, of course) that we would only be paid after we send back all the materials. Which, you know, I get, but it was expressed in the same tone you would tell your 5yo “You can only have dessert when you finish your veggies!”. Of course, I wasn’t planning on keeping their materials and I understand that they need them back; I just think we’re all adults and I felt it was somewhat inappropriate to hold people’s pay above their head like this. Also, we were expected to “bring from home” (aka, buy from our own money) many of the required teaching materials. And there were other things like this, e.g. there is a certain amount we’re allowed to spend on lunch for the students, but we’re instructed not to spend the whole amount. Like, what’s the purpose behind instructions like “You are allowed to spend a maximum of $50. But don’t spend all of it!”?

The work itself was fine – all the students were nice and the families were kind enough to chip in and bring food for everyone so we still had fun gatherings. In the end, I filed the summer job under “experience” rather than “job”. After all, I still didn’t get minimum wage when you break down the work… But I wanted the students to have a good experience and learn something, so that’s on me. Anyways, I got my school to credit me part of the job as an internship, so I would say it was worthwhile for me. I don’t think I would do it again, though.

Some commenters mentioned that they perceived the application process/organization as cult-like, which, looking back, I can kind of agree with. There is a lot of “but we are non-profit!”-talk (a lot like the “but we’re faaaaamily”-logic) albeit that’s not a reason to pay people badly or pressure them with not reimbursing expenses/withholding pay whilst expecting them to go out of their way for your organization. All in all, the organization people I was in contact with were nice, but it was overall unorganized, inefficient, and too red-flaggy. For a three-week summer-job it was bearable but I certainly wouldn’t do any long-term work with them. Furthermore, the experience made me aware of what to pay attention to during application processes and how to spot questionable work places. Thank you very much, Alison, for giving me a reality-check. Thanks to all the commenters who took time out of their day to offer suggestions and input, too! And in general, thanks for this blog which is so super helpful, especially for people who are new to the working world and don’t have a good feel for what’s normal/reasonable yet.

{ 94 comments… read them below }

  1. Detective Amy Santiago*

    That organization sounds awful, OP. Is Glassdoor or Yelp or something similar commonly used in your country? If so, I would definitely leave a review of all their shady dealings. It sounds like they prey on college students/recent grads that don’t know better.

    I’m glad you got something useful out of the experience and were savvy enough to write in for advice!

    1. Jake*

      In addition I would recommend reporting them to any local government organizations that handle labor complaints. LW, you were obviously able to be savvy and manage yourself and make this work. However, a LOT of people will not and you will be doing them a favor by ensuring this company has to answer for their shady, and straight up illegal in some cases, practices.

      1. HalloweenCat*

        Seconding this. If they actually put their “no pay for sick days” policy in writing anywhere, even in an email, and you still have it you should really report that. I know you said you didn’t personally utilize sick time but you should still report the crime they’re committing. After all, I would assume that if you witnessed a bank robbery you’d still report it even if you keep your money in a sock drawer. That’s basically what’s happening here.

      2. Observer*

        I agree with this. Also, in the US the bit about not paying till you send the materials back is flatly illegal. E=Yes, even for non-profits. So, if you have that in writing, it might be worth checking that out and reporting that as well.

      3. Chatterby*

        I agree and hope the LW sends in a complaint to the correct people.
        Worst Case scenario: nothing happens.
        Best Case: the business has to treat newcomers better and maybe the LW will get some additional compensation for the sick days and work expenses.

    2. Mary*

      LW, feed back to your university careers department if you have one! We often get students asking if So-and-So Organisation is legit, and having this kind of feedback is super useful. It’s also something we share with colleagues at other universities in our country.

      1. OP*

        Yes we have one and I’ll let them know. The organization even publicly advertised the summer jobs through our university so I’ll make sure the career department and advisors are in the loop. Thanks for the input!

        1. selena81*

          That’s good to hear. Those people should be not allowed to prey on (potentially vulnerable) students through official university channels.

    3. OP*

      I don’t know why I didn’t think of reporting them or writing a review – thanks for the suggestion! You (as well as Jake, HalloweenCat, Observer, and Chatterby) are absolutely right, I should report/review them. Will do!

    1. Less Bread More Taxes*

      I went for the America one a few years ago and was really disappointed I didn’t make it. Afterwards, I did some research on them (which of course I should have done first) and realised that I probably avoided a bad situation. These organisations can be rife with issues.

      1. Treecat*

        I’ll go on ahead and say it: Teach For America is a terrible organization and I loathe them. I work on a college campus and I see their signs up everywhere, and I am always sorely tempted to rip them down and throw them away.

        1. animaniactoo*

          My sister went through them right at the time that they changed from being a good work-building organization to a hot mess. She had to figure out finishing her degree/their requirements on her own after the org wouldn’t help her find another school to take a class they were requiring. She actually ended up being VERY lucky to find a school that literally designed a course that she was the only student of to fulfill that.

        2. Jen*

          Schools also use TFA to undercut teacher pay. It is an org that needs to die. It had a good mission, but it has caused harm to both participants and schools.

        3. Artemesia*

          I know several of my daughter’s peers thrown into horrible inner city schools in Teach for America with NO support from the principal or staff in totally no win situations. These were young women who had done camp counseling and other youth work and were not entirely without experience working with kids. Their training was weak in the program and they ended up with lots of kids with severe behavioral problems in their classes and no help. They found it impossible to teach the kids they could manage because of the handful of highly destructive students they could neither kick out of class nor manage. The idea that teaching, especially in difficult settings is something that anyone who ‘really wants to’ can just do without training or support is ridiculous.

          1. moql*

            Hi! I’m someone who went to one of those horrible inner city schools you mention. We got some Teach for America teachers. From our perspective, we knew those teachers werent going to last and the principals already had too little time to help the teachers who actually wanted to be there and cared about the students. Even best case scenario the TfA teacher does a great job, they still leave after two years. That’s just not worth the schools effort to provide them with any support. As kids, we also knew they were temporary and did not make any effort to get to know them or form a connection, because we know the would probably quit before the school year was over and did not want to be there. The program sucks, and you’re right that the teachers should get more support, but you’re completely wrong that the principals or teachers who were there because they wanted to be should have sacrificed any of their precious time to help TfA temps.

      2. Jen*

        I have heard absolute horror stories from my friends about TFA (and Peace Corps). I would seriously watch out for any of those “good cause” orgs that recruit recent grads. A lot of them use the “mission” to justify horrible work conditions.

        1. Brett*

          I had a really good experience with AmeriCorps. They placed me in a position that was very directly relevant to my degree and position and made sure I was reporting directly to high level people who could mentor me. The pay was horrible, but they made sure I made at least minimum wage and were very good about covering expenses and reimbursing.

          1. MCL*

            Agreed, I was an AmeriCorps VISTA and worked with a well-established literacy project. It was very organized. Like the rest of the working world, you can get a position in an awesome and well-run organization, or you can end up in a poorly run and disorganized organization. I was fortunate enough to be in the former category, and it was a really valuable experience.

            1. Linda Evangelista*

              I got the latter category! Ugh. I loved the actual site I was working at, but I have a LOT of feelings about “here’s a below-living-wage stipend, but you can get food stamps lol and your ‘education award’ gets taxed to hell.” I did it because I needed a job, and I wanted to live on my own in the city this program was in. In hindsight, I should have just moved back in with my parents and gotten an actual job in my field. I ended up really depressed during and after.

              1. bloody mary bar*

                Same! When your orientation process includes the process for applying for food stamps, something is very wrong. I’m glad I did it–I did help people and I learned a lot, but I was not surprised–after years of overworking and undersupporting their employees, AmeriCorps members, and volunteers–that the organization collapsed when the one person keeping it together left.

              2. CoveredInBees*

                The taxing the education award was a huge surprise! Did I learn about it from my organization (affiliated with Americorps, but not VISTA)? No. Did I learn about it from other Americorps participants? Nope.

                We were all informed via letters from the IRS and state taxation division that we had failed to declare income. Fortunately, no one was assessed penalties but we weren’t in great shape to pay the owed amounts either.

            2. Jaid*

              My Mom worked for Vista back in the sixties, Chicago and Philadelphia. She worked on a sort of Innocence Project thing.
              She’d be sad to hear that people had a bad experience with AmeriCorps.

          2. Starbuck*

            AmeriCorps can be a very mixed bag, as each state may have multiple separate agencies administering their own AmeriCorps programs, where members are then placed in sites at local non-profits, schools, or govts. It totally depends on where you end up. The state I’m in, one org pays its members the state minimum wage (one of the highest in the country). The other org gets the basic living stipend, which on January 2019 is going to work out to about $4/hr less than the state minimum wage. They explicitly justify this themselves by stating that the poverty wages help members better empathize with the communities they’re serving… it’s absurdly condescending to both sides. I don’t know how members serving in major cities manage it.

            I had the luck also of serving at a site where I was doing work directly relevant to my degree as well, and it was a huge boost for my career. In the field I’m in, there’s a huge expectation of working long hours for free to get your experience in, so doing AmeriCorps was certainly preferable to that. Very similar (maybe identical) to the kind of situation OP describes where non-profits put this absurd and unreasonable time and financial burden on their least-secure, least-compensated workers.

            1. WellRed*

              I had a roommate a few years ago doing AmeriCorp and I was having to fill out various documentation attesting to household income (they wouldn’t accept that she was her own household) so she get food stamps and what have you. I had to draw the line at the fuel assistance where there was no easy way to apply it and where I and my other roommate would have had to give her like 12 weeks of my pay stubs with all my personal info, etc. (She was OK with my decision). I was APPALLED to read on their website about poverty wages helping them empathize with the communities they are serving. What BS!

            2. Paris Geller*

              I’ve done three Americorps terms. Two were part of the state & national program, and I LOVED them. Sure, the pay wasn’t great but it wasn’t horrible (it was at least minimum wage), the education award was very useful, and for those I got free housing + free meals during the week. I also was very passionate about the organization I was working with and my experience there led me to my now-career in libraries. I’d recommend it in a minute.

              Then I did an Americorps VISTA program, and it was a hot mess. I could barely scrape by and felt taken advantage of all the time, something I never felt in my first two Americorps terms (with a different organization). I had no guidance, hardly any training, nothing. It’s made me very wary of the VISTA program.

            3. Willow*

              The idea that paying people wages that are too little to live on makes them empathize with the community they serve is absurd. It probably has the opposite effect—working class people can’t afford to take the job, so most of the members wind up being people with outside sources of income (eg — rich parents)

              1. RUKiddingMe*

                Or other income of some kind.

                Several years ago I did a literacy program that was loosely affiliated ‭with TFA, I don’t remember exactly the details now … and was paid well above minimum wage (like 2.5 times).

                However…I live in Washington which is either first or second highest minimum wage anyway. However I already had sufficient income (not my parents’ lol ). I was there for the experience not the money.

                Other people aren’t in that situation most of the time, especially students. Most students need the money.

          3. A Red Panda*

            I also had a great experience doing AmeriCorps State and National. I’ve mostly attributed that to the fact that one does not get “placed” in an assignment in the same was as other programs geared towards students and recent grads. My “placement” looked very much like a job interview: I did a phone interview with the local organization administering the specific AmeriCorps program, did another phone interview with the specific non-profit that I could be placed at, and we all three decided it was a good fit. If I had declined, it didn’t affect my chances of getting “placed” elsewhere. I hope things still work that way these days.

            1. Americorps Misery*

              See, I did Americorps VISTA, and went through this whole interview system for multiple placements, and still ended up in a awful position. The nonprofit I ended up with pretty clearly didn’t have any actual use for a VISTA, so not only was I living on poverty wages, but I was also massively bored and definitely being used for tasks that were not approved (think the owner’s own other for-profit business). I am very convinced that the Americorps program is pretty abusive, especially given that they not only designed the program to take advantage of food stamps, but also built in an exception to the ACA mandates for Americorps. Oh, and Americorps members are also an exception to FMLA. Why do I know this? Because all these things ended up affecting me during my Americorps year.

      3. TFA Alum*

        TFA alum here…I am grateful for the experience I had with TFA. I still work in the education field, although not as a teacher. Every TFA city has its own leadership, so the experience can vary significantly by location. However, I believe many people go into the experience thinking it will be something of a “gap year” before law school or business school or whatever, not realizing that they will be expected to work an extremely demanding and challenging job (as all teachers, especially brand new teachers, are expected to do). In our district, TFA teachers are considered regular school district employees, are invited to join the union, and are paid the same rate as any other first year teacher, so it is not a tool to undercut teacher pay. Those thrown into “no win” situations in difficult schools with little support from their administration experience the exact same challenges as every other teacher in the building. It’s not a perfect organization by any means, but many of the issues are due to larger issues in education in general in our country, and are not specific to TFA/TFA teachers. I don’t believe TFA is the solution, but in lieu of one right now, it serves a purpose. Additionally, it brings talented and motivated people into education who otherwise may not have chosen that path. Of my core group of friends from the program, half of us continue to work in schools. Two have started their own successful charter schools (another loaded issue, I know, but they are providing education to kids in need) and one has advanced to department head at his school. Another stayed a year past her two year commitment, and then decided to go to law school with a focus on public interest. She now works as a lawyer advocating for kids truly horrible situations. Had we not done TFA, I’m not sure any of us would have taken jobs in education/child services. So, yes, the organization has issues, for sure, but I wanted to point out some positives and realities that are not always highlighted.

  2. Matilda Jefferies*

    This is really interesting. It sounds to me like you went in with a good sense of the potential risks and rewards, and I like your outlook of thinking of it as an “experience” rather than a “job.” Glad it worked out so well for you!

    1. BRR*

      Well put! Because it was only a short-term job, it was a good way of learning what to look out for (although the LW sounds like they knew this even before they started).

      1. T. Boone Pickens*

        Well said Matilda. Sometimes you need to work the crappy job to appreciate the good stuff. Glad to hear that you’re walking away unscathed OP with if nothing else, some funny stories to share down the road.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      THIS. And getting the college to record it as an internship was brilliant.

      But I’m even more boggled learning that the 3-day interview was for a 3-week position.
      When you said summer, I had assumed months.

        1. OP*

          I agree. I’m glad I learned about reasonable interview processes and expectations with this summer-job and relatively little to lose. Honestly, I can’t imagine this form of interviewing being profitable (or fun) for the organization’s employees, either… Thanks for giving me perspective on the unreasonableness!

  3. Celaena Sardothien*

    That is quite the rigmarole they put you through, OP! Whew, glad you only had 3 weeks of that.

      1. OP*

        Hadn’t heared of “rigmarole” until now, just looked it up and will try to incorporate it in my vocabulary. Even more wisdom gained through the summer-job fiasco! ;)

    1. Kelly L.*

      Yes! They seem so out there that I’m surprised they didn’t have you cook a fancy dinner as part of the interview process, or whatever that one story was a few years ago.

      1. OP*

        Me too! Maybe next year’s applicants will have to do that, who knows?
        (In all seriousness though, I hope blogs like Alison’s and the feedback provided by all the commentors will discourage such practices and prevents applicants from going forward so that this ridiculousness stops eventually.)

  4. FuzzFrogs*

    I’m glad that your job worked out for you personally–especially that you got your college to recognize it as an internship! While you’re not based in the US, the structure of this sounds like a lot of internships here in the US–little to no pay, with the expectation that the interns shell out a lot of personal costs–so that basically, you have to be fairly well off in order to even consider an internship. I myself did a “college program” for six months that modeled itself as an internship but really functioned as cheap labor, and it’s hard to say whether or not it was worth it. It really aggravated my anxiety, but I was told point-blank that my experience with Company X–especially how I spun it in my interview–landed me my first real job.

    Personally, what I do to feel better about it is to highlight these predatory practices as a whole and to support movements that make these things better. I support the union at my current workplace, and the union at that old company has just made major strides in regards to wages.

    1. SignalLost*

      I’m curious to know what field you’re in that expects interns to pay for the org’s expenses. I worked for the cheapest non-profit in the world and even they wouldn’t let interns spend their own money. We also had paid and unpaid internships, which didn’t make a difference: if for some reason an intern had to pay for something, they were promptly reimbursed.

      1. Observer*

        I was wondering about that, too. Unpaid internships are a problem all on their own, but I do believe that expecting the interns to actually pay expenses is not typical.

        1. SignalLost*

          Our unpaid internships were for international students who were attending school on visas that did not allow them to work in the US. Since the org’s focus was business and international trade, the internships were legit in the students’ educational sphere. Our paid internships were donor-funded for domestic students who of course could earn income while in the US.

          1. Wintermute*

            This is literally the ONLY reason I think unpaid internships should be legal in any form– there are, after all, legal entanglements when you have people on student visas. But for US Citizens and other people with unlimited work permission? Sorry, no, slavery was made illegal almost 200 years ago for a good reason, fields that expect you to put in time for their enrichment for no wages should be ashamed of themselves.

            1. pleaset*

              Of course there are exploitative internships, but if the interns are learning, then they’re getting benefits for their time. It’s not just unpaid labor – it also has benefits to them. And is actually cheaper than paying for school.*

              The bigger problem with a proper (learning) unpaid internship is not about the impact on the actual interns. It’s the fact that it opportunities for advancement in that field that are limited to wealthy kids who can afford to work for no money. It thus has bad impact on society – even if the interns get something out of it. And, also, it might reduce wages/entry-level employment opportunities. It means poorer people are almost excluded from fields like elite journalism and fashion.

              *I’ve been an unpaid intern recently and it was worth it to me. I actually had the option of one of the internships counting for credit in my grad school program, but then I would have been paying to learn, as opposed to learning in exchange for my labor.

              1. Wintermute*

                Just because an inequitable system is beneficial to some it’s still exploitive… as you mention, it means that only people who can afford to live without income for a substantial period of time are even elligible for employment in the field.

                The law needs to step in and say all employment is pay-for-play, businesses cannot use “volunteers” or any other unpaid labor.

              2. TardyTardis*

                Cool, glad you could afford an unpaid internship. Nice way for a corporation to gate-keep poor people out, too.

      2. pleaset*

        I know of many unpaid internships, but haven’t heard of interns fronting money for organizational expenses, and think that is very rare. It’s certainly not common in the US in general. Perhaps in Fuzzfrong’s industry, which I’m curious about.

        1. Jack Russell Terrier*

          I’m not 100% sure about this, but a lot of Congressional interns come to DC from the Member’s home state and they have to find housing etc. This is one of the reasons Congressional interns are always seeking the best happy hours. DC is hugely expensive.

            1. CoveredInBees*

              Fuzzfrogs referred to “personal expenses” whereas the next commenter responded as if they had said organizational ones. This appears to be a misread that got repeated.

      3. MCMonkeyBean*

        I think they were saying a lot of internships expect interns to cover personal costs like housing and transportation, not org expenses like mandatory BBQ supplies. I agree that’s fairly common and a huge barrier to diversity and inclusion practices. I was able to take an unpaid internship near DC one summer only because my father had a friend in the area willing to house me for free.

      4. KC*

        Many of the personal costs with internships are housing and transportation. For instance, doing internships with the government or national organizations in Washington D.C. a person has to pay huge amounts in rent and transportation for mostly unpaid or low pay work. Luckily when I did mine I was able to stay with family.

    2. CupcakeCounter*

      I’ve heard of those types of internships but never encountered one (I’m also int he US). I work in corporate finance though and our internships (as well as the public accounting ones my friends/classmates did) were very different from what you and the OP described in that they were fairly decent pay and essentially 8/9-5 during the summer to learn office norms and help with some routine (read monotonous) tasks and provide coverage for low risk tasks while people were on vacation. Only personal cost was a business casual wardrobe (khakis and a button down level) so while not “normal college wardrobe” stuff they would be needing shortly anyway as most were in the summer before their final year.
      It must vary by field pretty significantly because I have heard stories similar to what you indicate.

  5. Oxford Common Sense*

    I feel like you dodged a bullet here… so many red flags. I’m glad you managed to avoid a major disaster, which I admit is what I was expecting as you described the situation in more detail.

  6. Murphy*

    This organization sounds awful! They shouldn’t put anyone, let alone college students, through all of that.

  7. BadWolf*

    Wow, that sounds like a ton of work for…just three weeks. Glad you wrangled some good points out of it!!

  8. CupcakeCounter*

    You sound very much like someone I would want teaching my child – positive attitude without the rose colored glasses. Excellent update and I very much doubt you’ll get internet-stoned. You seem very aware of the red flags and went in with your eyes wide open and made the best of the situation for long-term goals. Brilliant idea to get your university on board for internship credit – kind of takes some of the sting out of the lack of decent wages (still not cool of the NP though).

    1. Kyrielle*

      Yes, this. We don’t generally internet-stone people because they go forward with something that we advised them not to – especially when they have reasons! I think the spin of it as “experience” is very good – experience not only with the teaching and working world, but with recognizing red flags and knowing what you will/won’t do in the future regarding them.

      Plus, you knew it would only be three weeks. A three-week job is a much better way to get all of this experience than one that’s intended to be long-term.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Seconded. This was a really satisfying and interesting update, and I appreciated OP’s thoughtful approach to the experience (and very clear/organized explanation for their update!).

      2. Wintermute*

        Thirded! Sometimes some castigation is warranted when someone goes “well I knew you all said I shouldn’t but I did, and it blew up on me” but that’s very different than making a risk-aware choice in your own best interest, going in with your eyes open realizing it’s a less-than-ideal situation that still serves some of your interests, and taking what you can get for what it’s worth. Also, it’s a few weeks commitment, which is way different than I think most of us assumed, committing a few weeks is very different to losing a few months of your life to a job that is costing money rather than paying it.

        I’m reminded of a position I did in high school, I worked two months over the summer helping a teacher with a home ec summer school course that promised “$$$” on the poster, and I got a single 20-dollar gift certificate for my 120+ hours of work. I was so disappointed at the time but I never made a deal of it on the advice of my parents… looking back what the hell was that teacher thinking, trying to get help from a high school kid for a grand total of less than 20 cents an hour? shame on her! I should have filed a wage complaint and complained to the district.

        1. Eleanor Konik*

          Oh my goodness! My first paid job after high school was working for 2 months over the summer for the teacher I had been a student aide for, helping him type up worksheets for a book he was trying to put together about — you know, I don’t remember now? — because I was better with newfangled technology than he was (this was back in 2005) and he knew I had a good work ethic.

          He paid me $50 a day plus lunch!

    2. OP*

      Thanks! I appreciate all of your supportive comments and am very thankful for everyone’s feedback, both in the original post and here. Kyrielle is spot-on – in addition to the actual teaching skills, everything about this job taught me what to look out for in the future. Thank you CupcakeCounter and Princess Consuela Banana Hammock (what a name!) for the compliments and everyone for your understanding/insight in lieu of internet stoning! :)

    3. Bulbasaur*

      Agreed. I thought it was an excellent case study in how to deal with an organization that has many toxic elements but that you want/need to work with regardless (because they have something you want, you’re obliged to as part of your job, or whatever). You do a clear-eyed risk assessment, set appropriate expectations, have a realistic list of goals that take the situation into your account, and put on your Hazmat suit when required/appropriate.

      I was getting glimmers of recognition when reading your approach and thought process. I realized it’s very similar to the approach used by our account managers who specialize in dealing with difficult clients. You consider a lot of the same factors, down to figuring out how to shield the day to day workers, customers etc. from the organizational problems (your “wanted the students to have a good experience” comment). So the skills you demonstrate in this account are quite highly valued and transferable to a number of different situations.

  9. animaniactoo*

    No internet stoning here, LW! A lot of people deal with this kind of crap as the only way to *get* required experience at points. You did a great job of standing up for yourself and figuring out how to manage your own outlook about it so that you weren’t bitter about it. All that while managing to get stuff that was worthwhile to yourself out of it AND make it a worthwhile program for the recipients. That’s pretty awesome all around.

    The only thing that would make you even more awesome would be to spread your experience around to other students and the careers office at your school. Just because it will make it more difficult for them to take advantage of young people who don’t have a lot of leverage if the young people are informed and ready to stand up for themselves. ;)

  10. Observer*

    Overall, this is a good update. The organization DOES stink. But, you gt something out of the experience, and the learning experience in terms of things like red flags will be valuable to you. If you have to learn such lessons, at least let it be in a relatively low stakes situation like this.

    To be clear, I am NOT minimizing the badness of the org – the are TOTALLY out of line. And I totally agree that if you can report this to your school and / or the relevant government authorities, I’d strongly encourage you to do so.

    If you report and something happens, please let us know.

  11. TCO*

    OP, I’m impressed at how carefully you proceeded with this opportunity. Taking a job for the experience rather than the pay can be worth it sometimes, especially when it’s a short-term student job. You weren’t treated reasonably, but that doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t worth it.

    For contrast, I had a three-week summer job that involved travel the summer after I graduated from college, and I was paid for all travel to training and the job site, as well as virtually all expenses: lodging, food, incidentals, laundry, etc. That was a company that knew how to treat its staff!

  12. Walter White Walker*

    LW, you navigated a real crap-sandwich of a situation with poise and savvy, and even managed to take something positive away from it. Well done!

  13. The German Chick*

    OP, since you mentioned in the original post that you’d be curious for everyone’s guesses, I am going to guess that this story took place in Germany. I am glad the job was worthwhile for you and hope you can re-use the headshot later on :) On a more serious note (even if it didnt take place in Germany), working conditions like this contribute to the fact why minorities are not well-represented in German NGOs and state institutions (state summer jobs are usually entirely unpaid) – they just can’t afford it :(

    1. Flash Bristow*

      I was wondering if it was here in the UK – but I can’t imagine being given the equivalent of $250 for accom and travel! I mean, even student digs cost more than that! You can occasionally find a room in a shared house for £60 a week (not dollars!) but not short term… and you’d still need a travel pass. So – wow, that rate wouldn’t even cover the very bottom end…

      But anyway I’ll guess at uk, just for fun. I’m figuring it’s somewhere with English as a first language, from the way you write…

      And no stoning from me!

      1. Mary*

        I don’t think it’s UK. For a start, of an org didn’t want to offer sick pay here, they’d just use a zero-hours contract and it would be totally legal.

        1. TL -*

          Use of contracts, high cost of living, hot dogs and hamburgers…It’s most likely continental Europe, NZ, or Australia at that point, since you’ve ruled out Canada.

          Plus, your English still sounds really Canadian so (personally) I’d guess that you’re living somewhere where English isn’t the native language, which rules out UK/NZ/Aus* and leaves continental Europe.

          *Cost of living alone rules out Australia, I think – housing is NOT cheap down under.

  14. Hey Karma, Over here.*

    Honestly, with your good sense and strong writing ability, you should share this somehow. Like even more than Glassdoor, but a mini documentary, blog kind of thing. I think you could provide a lot of help to people in your situation. Maybe keep a journal of all your starting out experiences for the purposes of sharing.

  15. Antilles*

    And there were other things like this, e.g. there is a certain amount we’re allowed to spend on lunch for the students, but we’re instructed not to spend the whole amount. Like, what’s the purpose behind instructions like “You are allowed to spend a maximum of $50. But don’t spend all of it!”
    I will just call out this in particular wouldn’t necessarily be too weird on its’ own. It’s fairly reasonable for companies to have a set maximum on their reimbursement and sometimes that comes with a polite request (or unspoken implication) to “remember this is client’s money” or “taxpayer money” or whatever.
    I’ve always just interpreted such statements as just attempting to stay reasonable. If the budget is $37 for dinner, I’m not going to intentionally skimp by getting cheap fast food…but I’m also not going to intentionally go out of my way to spend every penny either. I’ll just go to a nice restaurant within the budget, order like I normally would, and let the chips fall where they may cost-wise – maybe that means I save the project some money because I really wanted a local pizza place (closer to $20 than $37), maybe that it’s really close to the limit because I felt like steak.
    It’s definitely yet another item of unreasonableness when combined with the rest, but on its’ own merits, this isn’t particularly eyebrow-raising to me.

  16. Amelia Pond*

    Why do you think you’ll be internet-stoned? You didn’t do anything wrong. Ill-advised, maybe (though it sounds like you made it work), but not wrong.

  17. mr. brightside*

    Hey, LW. I think you did pretty good considering the kind of exploitation it sounds like they usually do! Which they know they are doing, especially since they only go after college students. Good on you for getting it counted as an internship as well.

  18. Paris Geller*

    I’ve done three Americorps terms. Two were part of the state & national program, and I LOVED them. Sure, the pay wasn’t great but it wasn’t horrible (it was at least minimum wage), the education award was very useful, and for those I got free housing + free meals during the week. I also was very passionate about the organization I was working with and my experience there led me to my now-career in libraries. I’d recommend it in a minute.

    Then I did an Americorps VISTA program, and it was a hot mess. I could barely scrape by and felt taken advantage of all the time, something I never felt in my first two Americorps terms (with a different organization). I had no guidance, hardly any training, nothing. It’s made me very wary of the VISTA program.

  19. learnedthehardway*

    I was reading through the OP’s account, wondering whether they ever did get paid, and figuring that was going to be the final note – ie. that they didn’t. Would love to know how that turned out.
    For the record, you used a good decision process, and went in with your eyes open. That’s almost more important than the outcome – I’ve made bad decisions that have turned out spectacularly well, but it was just luck that they did, kwim?

    1. OP*

      I did get paid eventually, it just took quite long (because 60+ teachers send back all their materials and the organization’s employees check all contents of all packages before they issue the payment orders) and even longer for extra expenses. But they did pay us in full and I thankfully could manage until the payment came through.

  20. Traveling Teacher*

    Shenanigans like this are why I got out of full-time teaching. Even in Europe, the government can rewrite/bend the rules so that they don’t really respect their own laws about they types of contracts that teachers work. For example, I was forced (along with many colleagues) to sign a contract that said I would be paid only 3x per year, which is “legal” because you “agree” to it in your contract. (Not that you have a choice.) I’m guessing that withholding pay til you send back the materials falls under the same provisions if it was included in the contract. -.-

    That said, not paying sick leave? Definitely report them, LW! Worse comes to worst, they have some sketchy loophole that allows them to do it. Sadly, that wouldn’t surprise me, based on past experience.

    1. TL -*

      How is that legal? In the USA you can’t sign away your rights – basically, contracts can’t supercede the law; if it’s illegal and you agree to it, it’s still illegal and that part of your contract is null and void. The law is very, very clear on this.

    2. Michio Pa*

      Not US and same, legally workers are protected in that if you sign a contract that violates labor laws, it is void. Whether the country will enforce that, however…

  21. Jules the 3rd*

    Why would you get internet stoned for that? You thought out your options, listened to the advice, made the best decision for you, learned good things from it all. Very mature! Great job!

    I will say that for my undergrad college summers, I did two summers of ‘less than minimum wage’ jobs (camp counselor / lifeguard) and then two years of minimum wage + a little (lifeguard). I was privileged that my parents covered basic college expenses (tuition / board / books), and I just needed to earn spending money, but there’s never shame in considering more than just the pay. There’s no shame in considering the pay either – we do have to pay the bills eventually.

  22. Rumbakalao*

    Late to the party here but…

    I took a job very similar to this. Also for an educational company, though I wasn’t one of the teachers, and it ran for about a month. It was like working for a summer camp, and it was awful. They also almost exclusively hired college students and recent grads, clearly because no one else would ever sign up for the low pay, being away from home in Bumblefudge, Nowhere, and the insane hours. On average we’d be on the clock for about 16 hours a day, and the pay was so low that even with overtime we still weren’t making that much. No one was prepared for how things turned out and how poorly everything ran, meaning the interviewers and job posters did a terrible job of communicating what taking the offer would actually entail. One employee was so fed up halfway through that he walked out and bought his own plane ticket home.

    Unfortunately I think with this field especially, these problems are everywhere and with near every organization in some capacity. I think you were smart by examining every step of the application process and being wary of the red flags, and I hope at least that you have learned what you will and will not accept as a condition of working somewhere in the future. We can only hope that these places resolve their problems or shut down so that no one feels scammed by such a terrible experience like this.

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