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Unpaid Interns and Labor Laws: Gaining Experience, Enduring Abuse

5 years ago
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When one ambitious college freshman from Connecticut decided last year to work as an unpaid summer intern at a university close to his home, he expected to gain some valuable career experience. Instead, he discovered that reality often failed to live up to his expectations.

"One day, we came in, and they had a stack of files," he explained, "and they said, 'We need you to put these all in the computer, because we need to put them online. It's your job.' " Much of his workday, he added, consisted of mundane office tasks and repetitive clerical organizing.

"We were doing a lot of the work that people there were getting paid to do," he said. "Basically, we just got thrown in. A couple of people had been fired, and we had to do their jobs."

This student, who asked not to be identified in order to preserve his relationship with his former employer, is one of many college-aged Americans who have worked as unpaid interns performing jobs for which, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, they should have been compensated. The positions are especially popular among small businesses, which often look to save money while benefiting from the productivity of the students they hire. In response to increased scrutiny of these hiring practices from state governments – as well as from the Obama administration – the Department of Labor released a memo this month on its website clarifying exactly when companies must pay an intern for his or her work.

Under U.S. law, unpaid internships must serve primarily as educational training experiences. An unpaid intern cannot replace a regular employee, and the employer cannot profit directly from the work of the intern.

It's too early to tell whether there will be moves to enact legislation that provides additional protection for unpaid interns. But Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the Labor Department's wage and hour division, told The New York Times in April that the federal government would begin cracking down on companies that violate the law. "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," she told the Times.

But the reluctance among some students to report abuses – in order to maintain a good relationship with their employer – could complicate efforts to rein in illegal internships.

One student, who works in an unpaid position at a high-end restaurant in New York, explained that he arrived for work one night and discovered that the restaurant's dishwasher had not shown up for his shift. So he spent the night scrubbing dishes for no pay. Why didn't he complain?

"I think it would be an inefficient thing to report every little internship problem to some government department," he said. "It would hinder your chances of advancing. If you're not happy with your internship, and then you go report some sort of job-related complaint, then it sets a negative tone among places where people want to get their foot in the door."

This is the primary dilemma for college students with unpaid internships, explained Amy Murphy, the director of the summer internship program at the College of the Holy Cross. "It's tough because students are put in a really difficult position," Murphy said. "You need an internship, and you need to build your resume." At the same time, she added, "employers are often in the position of power, so it can be difficult for interns to voice concerns if abuses occur."

Companies also benefit from students who are willing to do work that they know is against the law. For the student who worked at the Connecticut university, turning in his boss simply wasn't worth it. "I didn't really mind doing the work," he said, "even though my employer was probably flirting with the law." He added, "I got experience out of it."

There is no official count of the number of unpaid internships in the U.S., but at many companies, the competition for these positions has become tougher. Brian Walsh, the C.E.O. of Long Trail Brewing Co., in Vermont, explained that his company has seen a striking increase in internship applications, for both paid and unpaid positions. "The number of people has increased twofold in the last year or so," he said. "And I can't tell if it's the effects of the economy or if it's just the fact that Long Trail has continued its growth pattern and that it's starting to show up more."

Walsh emphasized that the experience for unpaid interns at his company is largely educational. "From our standpoint," Walsh said, "the unpaid interns can serve a broad scope. If they want to do sales and marketing, they may work the brewery festivals that we do, and they'll set up and learn about the beers and the ingredients – and how to market the products."

Students who work as unpaid interns must consider whether the experience they gain justifies their lack of compensation. "The striking part is that you're doing high level work – almost more than the regular employees there – and yet, you don't get paid a cent," said the intern at the New York restaurant.

Still, Murphy explained that despite their drawbacks, unpaid internships are an invaluable resource, especially for students with little work experience.

"I think there are definitely abuses, and definitely companies that mistreat interns," she said. "But there are a lot of internships that are genuinely educational experiences, which you really can't put a price tag on."

James White, a Holy Cross freshman who is working this summer as an intern at a law firm, agreed.

"My view is that they're paying me with experience. And that's one thing that they made clear up front," he said. "Right now, I'm a freshman in college, and experience is the best thing for me. So I appreciate that I can get involved in a field I might enjoy – even if that means working as an unpaid intern. It's a way to be in that arena, to be in that environment – just to see if it's something I like."
Filed Under: The Cram

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