Unpaid internships need reform, programs too often lack oversight

By Greg Fullham II Contributing Writer

To college students across the country, the internship—a temporary position, either paid or unpaid, designed to provide basic work experience in a particular field—is all too familiar. Beth Throne, associate vice president of Student and Post-Graduate Development at F&M, believes, “Notwithstanding whether an experience is paid or unpaid, nearly every work experience can help college students clarify the path they may want to pursue beyond college and the academic and extracurricular acumen they may want to build to take them there.” Work experience can have clear, career-building value in developing skills and cultivating references, but the worth of the unpaid internship has come under fire recently, and for good reason.

Many of these internships, particularly those at for-profit companies, are exploitative, discriminatory, and lacking in any meaningful regulation.

In the professional world, employers hold a distinct advantage over prospective student employees. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the current unemployment rate between ages 20 and 24 is 10.8%, much higher than the total unemployment rate (5.6%). As a result, competition for experience is fierce, and employers can get away with offering unpaid positions because desperate students are willing to work without pay.

This is a fundamentally exploitative practice. The U.S. Department of Labor has developed six criteria to protect unpaid interns—(1) the internship must be similar to training given in an educational environment, (2) the internship must be for the benefit of the intern, (3) the intern cannot displace paid employees, and must work under the supervision of existing staff, (4) the employer cannot derive an immediate advantage from the internship, (5) the intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the end of the internship, and (6) both parties must understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship—but these regulations have gone largely unenforced because of reduced funding for the Department of Labor, and many companies flout the rules with impunity.

The lack of oversight means that interns often go without pay even for work that doesn’t fit the above guidelines. Throne notes, “The film, publishing and finance fields are notorious for offering unpaid experiences in this regard, and have fallen under increasing legal scrutiny.”

Even more dangerous, however, is the fact that unpaid interns do not fall under federal employment protections because they aren’t classified as true employees. This means that they have no grounds for lawsuits against workplace harassment, discrimination, and unsafe conditions, and can be exposed to a host of threats as a result. California, Illinois, New York, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. have recently enacted laws covering unpaid interns, but protections still fall alarmingly short elsewhere in the country.

In addition to allowing employers to take advantage of unprotected, unpaid labor, the process is highly discriminatory. Most lower- and middle-income students cannot afford to take part in an internship without pay, so the playing field is tipped unfairly in favor of students from higher-income families. Throne said that, of the 73% of F&M students who engaged the Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development, “A majority of students secured paid internships, with a percentage of that group foregoing a valuable unpaid experience because of the financial hardship presented by a summer without wages.”

F&M has taken admirable and important steps to help students combat this hardship, offering educational credit and stipends for some internships, but in the end, these measures merely legitimize and enable the broader exploitation of student workers by for-profit employers rather than provide a resolution for these F&M students.

While unpaid internships are unlikely to disappear given that many companies on shoestring budgets, from newspapers to startups, simply don’t have the money to pay interns, comprehensive reforms are absolutely necessary. Federal employee protections must be extended to unpaid interns, and the Department of Labor must prioritize the prosecution of predatory companies. Lawsuits against multi-million dollar companies like Fox Searchlight and NBCUniversal have brought attention to the plight of the unpaid intern, and it is time for the federal government to take up the issue.

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