Pushing back against illegal unpaid internships

My appearance on The Colbert Report and an earlier blog post about unpaid internships have generated a lot of thoughtful comments and some heartbreaking stories about how hard it is to find a paying job today, even with a graduate degree. I’d like to respond to some of the comments, remind readers that this is an international problem, and point out some resources for interns who feel abused by their employers.

First, the comments. A few readers were still confused about what is legal and what isn’t, and about what legal changes I am advocating.

Certain nonprofits do not have to pay volunteers, including interns. I think there are ethical problems with nonprofits that pay their executives hundreds of thousands of dollars a year but can’t scrape up the funds to pay their interns the minimum wage. And I think it limits access to full political participation and social mobility when entry-level positions in government or nonprofits are taken by the sons and daughters of well-off parents, who support them while they work unpaid. Working class and poor kids don’t have that option and will be denied important opportunities if congressional and executive branch internships or internships in nonprofit organizations that are pre-requisites for formal, paid employment are unpaid. But I am not advocating changes in the law.

Rather, I am calling for enforcement of the law as it already is and for employers to abide by the law, which says that work performed for the benefit of a private sector, for-profit business must be paid at no less than the federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour). In the District of Columbia, Santa Fe, N.M., San Francisco, and in many states, the minimum wage is higher than $7.25 an hour. Unpaid internships in for-profit businesses are already illegal unless they meet every element of the strict six-part test provided by the U.S. Department of Labor.

My blog post sparked a lively debate about the role of universities in promoting unpaid internships. One commenter, Heather Krasna, disagreed strongly with my statement that “universities have a cozy deal collecting tuition for semesters in which their students get farmed out as free labor to employers.” Heather’s response? The fault lies with employers, not the schools:

“The deal with college credit is not that it benefits universities. It absolutely does NOT benefit the universities. The reason students have to take credits for internships is that employers believe that it absolves them of the 6 prong minimum wage test– i.e. if a student gets college credit for their work, they are no longer an unpaid slave laborer, instead they are a “trainee” and the internship is proven to be a “learning experience” (i.e. college credit=proof the internship is not a job). So, the reason universities often allow/accept students’ getting credit for unpaid internships is that the university is being directly and loudly pressured by students who want desperately to get work experience and are being told by an employer that they can’t work for free unless they get credit. Universities, rather than telling their students that they are not going to be allowed to get relevant work experience, cave in and push their faculty to offer credit to avoid students (and their parents) from making a fuss that the university “is standing in the way” of the students’ career experience.”

But another commenter, FiredCareerCounselor, disagrees and puts the blame squarely on the schools:

“Make no mistake that unpaid internships are advocated by institutions of higher education as a means of generating huge revenue by exploiting students.  The college where I work recently mandated internship for ALL students. When I expressed concern about the legal and ethical ramifications, I was replaced. Even at our small, public university, students leave with staggering student-loan debt.  To think we’re MANDATING a work-for-free policy, is shameful.  Here’s hoping for precedent-setting in the Hearst case, so students can earn tuition money via internship, and career centers can return to the business of getting students jobs, not volunteer positions!”

Ross Perlin, in his seminal book, Intern Nation, cites Gina Neff, a professor at the University of Washington who has studied communications internships and calls internship tuition credits a significant revenue stream for colleges and universities. “It’s a dirty little secret” that internships represent “a very cheap way to provide credits…cynically, a budget balance.” But whether universities are being thrown into the briar patch or climbing in themselves, the result is the same: Students are effectively forced into paying for work (by paying for course credits) that they ought instead to get paid for doing. And as commenter Courtney points out, students from economically challenged families find themselves at another disadvantage:

“Like many other facets in American culture, these are truly “luxuries” of the economically stable. It simply puts forth another disadvantage for impoverished children who might be forced via university policy to obtain one of these internships, when, in reality, they need to work for wages out of necessity. It is incredibly callous, elitist, and stereotypically American to assume that all parents have the financial resources to sustain their children through months of unpaid work.”

On a related issue, commenter BS complains that the coalition government in the United Kingdom has been forcing unemployed workers to accept unpaid work with for-profit companies as a condition of receiving unemployment benefits. This outcome is precisely what I and many others fear could be the result of Georgia Works and the Bridge to Work experiments that will be conducted as part of the recent congressional deal to continue the emergency unemployment compensation program. Programs of voluntary free labor such as Georgia Works have a disturbing tendency to turn into mandatory programs.

Ironically, the coalition government in the U.K. has taken a strong and principled stand against the exploitation of unpaid interns. The government is cracking down on employers in the fashion industry and successful lawsuits have been brought against media companies, some of which have required entry-level employees to work for free for six-to-nine months as interns, in violation of the British minimum wage law. I hope that the Obama administration will eventually follow the lead of its supposedly more conservative ally and crack down on illegal internships in the U.S.

Finally, commenter Wps32axe wonders what effect unpaid internships have had on high school students. High schools used to run co-op programs where students would be released from school for several hours a week to work in local businesses as a way to learn about the world of work in a supervised, structured setting, while getting paid. I can only imagine that whatever high school co-op programs remain are being undermined by the new permissiveness that lets employers (despite the fact that it’s illegal) hire young workers without having to pay them. Employers were already permitted to pay a shockingly low subminimum wage of $4.25 an hour to young people under the age of 20 for the first 90 days of their employment. But if college students are willing to do grunt work for free, the odds of high school students finding decent paid work diminish.

As for resources, the first one I’ll mention is the Occupy Wall Street Arts and Labor Working Group, which sent an open letter to the New York Foundation for the Arts condemning the placement of classified ads for unpaid internships at for-profit institutions. The Working Group is planning a campaign against exploitative internships. And as a public service to abused interns anywhere in the U.S., here’s the firm that filed the complaints in and is litigating the Black Swan and Hearst Corporation wage theft cases:

  • Outten & Golden LLP
    Advocates for Workplace Fairness
    3 Park Avenue, 29th Floor
    New York, NY 10016
    Tel: (212) 245-1000 x4360
    Fax: (646) 509-2087

Most states have a labor department or attorney general’s office that enforces state labor laws, including the state minimum wage, which can be $1 an hour or more higher than the federal minimum. Interns who have not been paid wages to which they are legally entitled can file complaints with the appropriate state agency. They can also file with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which has 200 offices around the country. For information about how to file a complaint, call this toll-free number: 1-866-487-9243. You can also send an email to the Wage and Hour Division and contact the office nearest you.

  • David

    Great job with Colbert.  You brought attention to an important issue.  And, yes, nonprofits, even good guys should pay their interns.

  • Billnorhome

    Wait. My daughter went to hohokus rest mutely and before they can apply for the state certificate to be a vascular ultrasound sonographer they must work at an externship for three months. They not only work free for the doctor/hospital they have to pay around three thousand dollars to do it! Is this legal?

  • Robert

    When I was in law school we did summer clerking (and many, after class clerking during the year.) We expected to and did get paid. We needed the money, we were poor students for goodness sake! The firm expected to pay for work. We learned practical law, might even later get hired, and the firm got cheap help. In any event, it was called clerking- not  interning- which is BS.
    Now, law schools require “internships.” Law firms get, not just cheap- but free labor,  and the law school gets to award credit without having to spend money or teach anything!. What a deal! The only one who gets screwed is the student.

    If this is the path schools want to go down, we could just skip the law school part altogether, go back to the 19th century, and like Lincoln, clerk with a firm until you sit for the bar and pass.
    I’m pretty sure that even way back then, when you worked for the law firm, you got paid!  This is progress?


  • Johnjeff87

    I am 24 and I work as a video editor.  I worked for a computer company during college that paid me 11 dollars an hour.  When I wanted to begin to find work in video and film production, there is no way around doing unpaid work.  It’s not just immoral, it really is humiliating and just draining working that job, all the time your fingers are crossed hoping there is a paid job at the end of the road.

  • mcbacalso

    Thank you for bringing attention to this issue. I am currently an unpaid intern at an international tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, and the issue of unpaid internships is also glaring within the United Nations. This elite organization “employs” at least 3,500 unpaid interns per year, mostly in some of the most expensive capitals of the world (New York, Geneva, The Hague) as highlighted by this article on Global Journal: http://theglobaljournal.net/group/global-minds/article/611/ 

    In particular, the Hague tribunals have set up specific obstacles to interns getting hired on as full-time employees after their terms, such as mandating that interns wait 3-6 months after the end of their internships before applying for posted positions. Despite the lofty goals of the UN as an “international” organization, only 5% of interns come from lesser developed nations (and represent the elite in those nations), while the rest are like myself – new graduates from rich nations (in my case, Canada) who are middle-class and as such, have had to rely on credit cards and loans to subsidize my internship experience.

    As stated in the article, interns in the UN are beginning to mobilize, such as the creation of the Geneva Interns Association (http://www.internsassociation.org/) with the eventual aim of collective bargaining with the UN institutions and other organizations. My fellow interns and I are looking to start a similar such group in the Hague, which has interns from the ICC, ICJ, ICTY and other tribunals, as well as several IOs and NGOs. Unfortunately, change will be slow and incremental in the UN.

  • Student

    I am a Master of Social Work student and we are required by our MSW program to complete 900 hours (8 credit units) of an internship/practicum. In this MSW program, 1 credit hour costs around $1130, which means that we pay over $9,000 in tuition to the University for an internship (most of the internships are unpaid). Our practicum supervisors at the agencies are the ones who supervise us, so there’s really not much the University has to do, besides process our paperwork, to bring in the tuition for the internship requirement. It comes as a shock when someone does find a PAID internship, because so many of us are interning at non-profits that don’t pay interns. In my case, I am doing the exact same duties and tasks as some of the paid part-time staff, yet because I am a developing professional in a graduate program, they get away with not paying me (even though the part-time staff don’t hold Masters degrees). Not only is this a problematic agency practice, I think it’s unethical for the University to promote and condone this type of exploitation of students. If businesses and non-profits are unwilling to get on board to pay interns, (which can be an ethical and legal issue)… another option I would recommend is that the development department at Universities start to raise funds for stipends for students, particularly those who are low/moderate income, to get some financial assistance as they complete their internship requirements. The way the system is currently working, many of us are taking out loans to pay the credits for our internships when we don’t get paid in return. 

  • Nmauer

    I founded America’s Future Workforce (www.americasfutureworkforce.org) with the vision of helping young adults get internships within a field of choice and paying them for it! Check it out, and let me know what you think.

  • Ben Stanley

    I would like to add another variation on this theme.  In Canada, in order to become a professional stage manager certified by Canadian Actors Equity, you must complete 6 apprenticeships for theatre, dance or opera companies.  However, those companies are not required to pay their apprentice, and seldom do. At best they offer a pitiful ‘honorarium’.  So here we have a union dedicated to protecting cultural workers’ rights, exploiting their own future members.  

  • mb

    Universities are clearly profiting from this deal. It makes no sense to charge for internship credits. Regular credits cost money because a professor (and a TA or whatever) have to be paid. Your internship costs the university nothing (except maybe a small administrative cost) and yet you pay the school the full cost as if you were receiving teaching hours. Universities could so easily give internship credits at only the administrative cost. But they don’t because this system equals free money.

  • um

    Imagine being an architecture student. In order to be eligible for the licensing exams (which cost hundreds themselves) you need to complete almost 3 years of internship work. 3 YEARS OF NOT BEING PAID! And all of this comes after having to spend a minimum 5 years in school for just a bachelor’s degree. It’s nonsense.

  • Ann Kelly

    What about Not for profit theatres, that stipend their actors? Instead of a wage? Is that legal?

  • Beetsnow

    RE: Unpaid internships in for-profit businesses are already illegal unless they meet every element of the strict six-part test provided by the U.S. Department of Labor.
    Actually even the Dept. of Labor doesn’t agree with you. I was an unpaid intern in a private company and when I contacted the DOL I was told that if the company says it’s an internship regardless of any violations of the DOL’s own “internship” regulations, than zap…..it’s over. The company prevails and you didn’t even get to file a written report. And NO private lawyer wants to touch this stuff either. Looking for someone now who can show me why I’m wrong. From Kneesox at inbox dot com on first day of spring 2013