Is Your Unpaid Internship Illegal?

College internships: they are the golden ticket to employment, or at least that’s the thought at my University. My print journalism program requires that I complete one unpaid, for-credit internship before graduation, and many job hunting sites suggest that we complete unpaid internships in order to appear to be dedicated to our chosen field. Depending on what work you do at your unpaid internship, it could actually be an illegal arrangement.

The New York Times had an article last week about this and it’s something every college student should be aware of.

According to the article, Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the Labor Department’s wage and hour division, said “If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law.”

What are the circumstances where it is legal? The article included a link a letter sent by the Labor Department to “employers” of interns and it can be viewed here. Basically the internship must contribute to your over-all career goals in order for it to be legal; for instance it should be run like a vocational or trade school, as the article stated, training you for future employment.

The Labor Department is afraid that these illegal situations, such as having an intern go on coffee runs, sit in the fashion closet for hours, or any other internship horror stories you have most likely heard from friends, are on the rise because of the bad economy and the need for cheap, or rather free, labor. You know the tasks, you’ve probably done them. If they are part of an overall positive experience, does it really matter? Even if it does matter, would you report a violation?

I don’t think many students would, and in fact I personally believe many are so brainwashed by the college system that they actually believe these tasks are part of “paying your dues.” Doing entry-level work is one thing, but doing it on your time so that it interferes with your homework, is that an abuse of the situation? I’m not sure. I do know that some of my own internships may not clearly fit the six federal legal criteria cited in the New York Times’ article, but I agree with the students quoted in the piece: I wouldn’t want to disclose the information or challenge it because I am afraid it would give me a bad reputation and make it harder to get jobs in the future. The job market is hard enough to navigate, you don’t need a bad reputation hanging around your neck.

The article cited a situation in which a college student worked a summer unpaid internship, and her parents weren’t happy that she wasn’t making money in the summer. I agree, I don’t think you should have to work for free, nor do I think it’s practical for U

niversities to expect you to work for free AND pay for the credits. My required for-credit internship was actually pushed a semester ahead on my bill so that I could pay for it in a semester when I was able to work more hours– a semester when I didn’t have an unpaid job, but two paid jobs. I don’t mean to complain, or to sound like I’m whining, I just don’t understand where Universities believe the funds come from– should an “educational” work experience actually be a cause for you to take yet another loan?

My experience as a underclassman was that unpaid internships were the key to the future; my reason for being, so to speak. In my graduating exit classes, professors have expressed their distaste for a job like this. One of my professors the other day was so furious about having students work for free, but the problem is that until students are furious, the practice will continue.

A fellow student and senior public relations major, Chelsey Hood, of East Haddam, Conn., recently stated in an email that she believes the experiences she’s had have followed the gui

delines and she never worried about the lack of funds provided.

“I think that even though it would have been nice to have been paid at the internships I have done, they have been so beneficial to my career and education that money was never part of my decision. Each internship has built on the other; I’ve done three internships and I think I got each one because of the experience I gained at the previous one,” Hood said.

All this talk of college credit, and yet you have no idea where that factors in, right? Well the Times’ article stated:

“…But federal regulators say that receiving college credit does not necessarily free companies from paying interns, especially when the internship involves little training and mainly benefits the employer.”

How many of us can say that? I think quite a few internships fit under that category.

Lauren Berger, the Intern Queen, believes that this ambiguity is what might get employers and interns confused in the first place.

“I work with over 500 employers that run both paid and unpaid internship programs. As defined by the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) unpaid internships are not illegal IF they follow the outlined criteria to make them legal. I find the many employers are unfamiliar with these guidelines. They don’t understand that an intern cannot be treated like an employee and must participate in a “trainee-like” experience. They don’t understand that the company should not directly benefit from the intern (the intern should not be directly generating revenue for a company). That being said, we need more resources to educate employers on what qualifies a legal internship experience for students. The FLSA comes across outdated and ambiguous. We need strict guidelines and more means to promote them,” Berger said in an email.

According to employers, the article continues to report, the laws were originally created in 1947 when the internships were actually training positions for blue-collar (or technical work) jobs, and don’t really apply to the white-collar jobs of 2010.

The article finally touches on a bit of a sad note: some female interns filed a sexual harassment complaint and it was dismissed because they weren’t really employees. Is that what this state of limbo allows employers to do? Negate an interns rights and needs?

Will you evaluate internship offerings better in the future? What do you think will happen as this gains publicity, or do you think it will gain publicity at all? Sound off below on this INCREDIBLY important topic!

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