Universities are part of this cycle. Most promote and publicize internships with little discussion of the downsides, and many require them for graduation. That means 10 million students at four-year schools are pushed toward internships each year. Not all of them can find a job after a turn through this grist mill.
3.Interns enjoy workplace protections.
Unpaid interns are not employees, according to the courts, even if they have worked full time for a year in the same office as paid workers. Without legal standing, many interns are unable to claim basic workplace protections. Interns who have alleged sexual harassment in California, Oregon, Nebraska, Massachusetts and D.C. have had their cases dismissed, leaving them in legal limbo.
Consider Bridget O’Connor, a social-work major at Marymount College in New York. During an unpaid internship at the Rockland Psychiatric Center in 1994, O’Connor said that she was consistently harassed, and that a psychologist asked to remove her clothes before entering his office and suggested they have an “orgy.” Supervisors at the center were deaf to her complaints, as was the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. O’Connor’s case was dismissed because she was not a Rockland employee and therefore lacked standing to sue. These precedents still stand.
4.Not paying interns is legal.
Whether an internship is full-time or one day a week, at a Fortune 500 company or at the Justice Department, motivated by the need for academic credit or a desire to change careers, there are very few situations where people can legally work for nothing. Although volunteering is allowed at nonprofits, most internships involve substantive, vital work for which people must be compensated.
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938, an intern is an employee, however temporary or inexperienced, and entitled to minimum wage. Yet hundreds of thousands of interns in the United States — one-fourth to one-half of them — work without pay or for less than minimum wage. Much of this is regular work at for-profit companies, and it should fall under the FLSA. A 2007 study found that 18 percent of college interns received neither pay nor academic credit for their work. Rewarding in other ways or not, these positions were probably illegal.
5.D.C. interns just answer phones.
Nowhere is internship culture more embedded than inside the Beltway. According to a 2009 estimate by Politico and the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, 20,000 interns descend on the capital each summer. Sure, many of them get the mail, make coffee and answer the phone. But some do more — much more.
Stanford University interns, for example, help draft policy at the Health and Human Services Department, track voting abuses for the Justice Department’s civil rights division and, at the World Bank, help make cellphone-based financial services available in developing countries.Elsewhere in Washington, interns help write speeches for legislators on the Hill and find witnesses in murder cases for the D.C. Public Defender Service — all the more reason they deserve proper compensation and workplace protections.
Ross Perlin is the author of “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.”
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