Apr 5, 2010

Unpaid internships: the new frontier of illegally exploiting workers?

Here's a news piece that we think merits its very own post: the New York Times reports that federal and state regulators believe more and more cash-strapped employers are illegally using unpaid internships to extract free labor from America's young workers.

Turns out there are laws regarding the use of unpaid interns. Specifically, employers must comply with six federal legal criteria (which some argue are in need of updating) in order to enjoy the fruits of unpaid labor. These would be good rules for every young job-seeker to keep in mind. And while you may not be able to memorize the rather jargon-y Department of Labor advisory on the subject, here are some highlights:

"Among those criteria are that the internship should be similar to the training given in a vocational school or academic institution, that the intern does not displace regular paid workers and that the employer “derives no immediate advantage” from the intern’s activities — in other words, it’s largely a benevolent contribution to the intern.


"When the jobs are mostly drudgery, regulators say, it is clearly illegal not to pay interns.


"The rules for unpaid interns are less strict for non-profit groups like charities because people are allowed to do volunteer work for non-profits."

This trend itself isn't news to high school and college students and recent graduates who are all too familiar with the scarcity of real jobs and paid internships. The thankless unpaid internship has arguably become a right of passage for young people looking to break into the professional world. But the fact that the practice of using unpaid interns to perform "drudgery" at for-profit companies is actually illegal, and the idea that government regulators are trying to do something about it? That's remarkable. And we have one woman in particular to thank (remember her from the Nation?):

"Last year, M. Patricia Smith, then New York’s labor commissioner, ordered investigations into several firms’ internships. Now, as the federal Labor Department’s top law enforcement official, she and the wage and hour division are stepping up enforcement nationwide."

As the Times aptly points out, the rise of the unpaid internship isn't only an issue of exploiting eager young people and displacing regular workers, it can also disadvantage moderate- and low-
income families and make it harder to fight discrimination:

"While many colleges are accepting more moderate- and low-income students to increase economic mobility, many students and administrators complain that the growth in unpaid internships undercuts that effort by favoring well-to-do and well-connected students, speeding their climb up the career ladder.

"Many less affluent students say they cannot afford to spend their summers at unpaid internships, and in any case, they often do not have an uncle or family golf buddy who can connect them to a prestigious internship.


" 'A serious problem surrounding unpaid interns is they are often not considered employees and therefore are not protected by employment discrimination laws,' [Kathyrn Edwards, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute and co-author of a new study on internships] said."

The truth is, internships can be a great way to gain experience in an industry and to supplement your education. But there are limits to the things anyone can be expected to do without pay. So if you're slaving away making coffee and cleaning the bathrooms "pro-bono" at a fancy law firm, bank, or Fortune 500 company, know that you have the right to be paid. And if you've noticed your company is trying to cut costs by replacing regular, paid employees with unpaid interns, speak up. America needs good jobs, not new forms of exploitation, in order to recover from the current economic crisis.


UPDATE: Our friends at Mother Jones report that Atlantic Media has decided to start paying their interns - including some retroactive pay for this year and last year's class of interns. This is great news!

1 comment:

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