Unpaid Interns Doing Full-time Work

As American colleges and universities wind down another school year, many students will be seeking out summer internships. Interning at the right place can help new grads gain valuable experience and build a professional network, both of which are as key to future success as earning good grades in the classroom. But more and more, interns are doing work that was once performed by full-time paid staff — without the compensation.

Propublica reports that U.S. Department of Labor rules to protect students from employers that require them to perform duties similar to paid staff are in place but are not well enforced:

In April 2010, the Department of Labor released a six-point test to help determine whether an internship in the for-profit sector qualifies to be unpaid under federal law. One of the key criteria is that the position must be of more benefit to the intern than of benefit to the company.

Companies can’t just use interns to replace regular employees. The Department of Labor may examine internships during investigations of an employer’s compliance with wage standards and record-keeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to a spokesperson.

But Dr. Philip Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, says the government’s enforcement efforts have been passive.

The Economic Policy Institute has also been a leading voice on this issue:

Over the past decade, the illegal use of unpaid interns has exploded with little protest. EPI has been a crucial voice highlighting the inadequate regulation of student internships and has detailed why it is wrong, particularly with respect to for-profit employers not paying interns for their work. Unpaid internships don’t fairly reward hard work, they block economic mobility, and they leave young workers exposed to exploitation.

Many large companies, agencies, and nonprofits do not pay student interns. For example, the United Nations summer internship is an unpaid internship. Unpaid internships contribute to the widening economic gap between low-income and high-income students. Students from wealthier families can afford to live in high-cost cities like Manhattan and accept unpaid internships at the UN.

Low-income students, meanwhile, often have to work a job to stay in school. To take on an internship — especially an unpaid one — amounts to working two full-time positions. 

In a quest to gain more insight on this topic, ProPublica is asking students to report on their summer interning experiences. If you are an intern out there, you can do so here.

At the end of the day (or summer), student internships should be experiences that, coupled with academic coursework, give students a leg up and allow them to improve skills that will lead to future careers. They shouldn't be free labor for a company unwilling to pay for the staff it needs to meet demand.

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