LOS ANGELES — Malibu, Calif., resident Ashley St. Johns-Jacobs typically rises before 5 a.m. to get to her job at the Los Angeles city attorney's office by 8 a.m. After a full day prosecuting misdemeanors, she often brings work home.
What she doesn't bring home is a paycheck. With no position open, she has been working as an unpaid intern for nearly a year in hopes of eventually getting hired when a job opens up.
"We live on a tight budget," said St. Johns-Jacobs, 40, whose husband works as a microphone boom operator for Hollywood studios. "But someday they will be hiring."
Meet the new interns. With the unemployment rate still high and the economy not creating nearly enough jobs to put the nation's 13.7 million unemployed back to work, seasoned workers like St. Johns-Jacobs are doing what was once unthinkable: working for free.
While they all prefer to be paid, many say they are grateful to at least be in the workplace. Sitting at home, their skills may atrophy, and they'll have a hard time explaining that big gap on their resumes to potential employers.
There is little data about the number of unpaid workers toiling in the economy. But anecdotal evidence and a quick search of jobs sites such as Craigslist turn up a number of postings in which accountants, bakers, waitresses and nurses volunteer to work for free to get their feet in the door.
Allie Abrams, 25, of Venice, Calif., wants to be a baker, but without any experience, she said she is unlikely to find a job. So she posted an ad on Craigslist offering to work at a bakery for free.
"The chance of me being hired part-time is slim to none," said Abrams, who wants to someday start a bakery of her own.
Minimum wage laws prohibit employers from hiring employees for less than a certain hourly rate. Unpaid interns are exempt from these rules, but the Labor Department makes clear that the unpaid worker must be getting something for his or her time. The training must be similar to that given in a vocational school and for the benefit of the trainees. The interns can't displace regular employees and are not entitled to a job at the end of the internship.
Some believe that employers are exploiting the slow economy by using volunteers, when they should be hiring paid workers.
While many unpaid interns agree to work for free in the hopes of parlaying the experience into a job, it doesn't always turn out that way.
Marissa Milan, 26, said she worked 360 hours as an unpaid medical assistant in an office in Santa Ana, Calif. When her hours were up, she was told she wouldn't be getting a paid job. She is now taking a job in customer service at a different company, although she just completed training to become a medical assistant.
An internship can take away from the time interns would spend looking for a job, said Angie Cooper, an administrator at Jewish Vocational Services in Los Angeles. Cooper advises unemployed workers to do internships to get out of the house and get experience but says, "We do coach our folks as to when it does become abusive."
The number of qualified people agreeing to work for free indicates just how bad the labor market is, said Sylvia Allegretto, economist at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California-Berkeley.
"If you absolutely can't find a job, and you're better off working for free, that's a real statement about the dire situation in the labor market here in California," she said.