Employers: Pay your interns. Labor Department: Bust them if they don’t!

The summer has begun and greedy employers across the country are searching for people who will work for them for free. Meanwhile, in a few weeks the nation will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which makes it illegal for most employers to take advantage of their fellow Americans’ work without paying at least the minimum wage for it.

At a time when the real value of the minimum wage is well below the levels of the 1960’s (making entry-level workers quite affordable), when the weak labor market is forcing college graduates in record numbers to take jobs that don’t require a college degree and entry level wages for college grads are already substantially below the levels of 10 years ago, the exploitation involved in not paying employees anything at all is shameful and economically dangerous.

It’s dangerous because the main obstacle to a healthy recovery from the Great Recession is weak consumer demand, and unpaid internships hurt consumer demand in two ways. First, they leave interns without any wage income, reducing their ability to purchase the products and services supplied by businesses. Second, they lower expectations and reduce wage demands by employees who do have paying jobs.

Nevertheless, employers from coast to coast think that simply by calling a job an internship, they can take advantage of young people desperate to start their careers and get the benefit of their talents and work, but not pay them even a measly $7.25 an hour.

Here is an example, easily found by searching on Craigslist, which is a clearly an employer the U.S. or New York State Department of Labor should visit and investigate.

This job requires skills that InParentis, the employer, does not have, by their own admission. They aren’t mentoring the employee/intern who takes this job, as they freely admit. They fail the most basic of the six parts of the test of a true internship: there is no pretense of a closely supervised, vocational school educational experience. This job is for the immediate benefit of the employer, who wants marketing help from someone with knowledge and skills—without paying for it. Nationally, entry-level marketing assistants earn, on average, about $16 an hour, far more than the minimum wage.

Here is another, from the West Coast. LUCK Media & Marketing doesn’t want to provide a mentoring, educational experience—it wants only a “qualified” individual who knows several office computer programs, can manage a database, update the company website and social media accounts, answer phones, pick up and deliver packages, and who brings her own laptop! It wants detail-oriented work from a talented employee—without paying anything for it.

Where is the California labor standards enforcement agency? Why hasn’t someone at the Wage Hour Division of the U.S. DOL paid a visit to LUCK Media & Marketing and told them to obey the law?

If the government doesn’t enforce the law, all employers will eventually think they can hire employees without paying them, simply by calling it an “internship.” As long as the labor market is weak, desperate young people will take these jobs, believing they have no choice, persuaded that the only way to get a paying job is to suffer through a period—or multiple, serial periods—of exploitation.

Law firms and private plaintiffs have brought some high profile FLSA cases, including a new suit against designer Norma Kamali and a suit that Charlie Rose settled for half a million dollars. But first and foremost, enforcing our bedrock labor law is the responsibility of the government.

As we approach the 75th anniversary of the FLSA, the DOL owes it to America’s workers to stand up for them and enforce this fundamental, crucial law.


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