There are many college students willing to work as interns — and, often, willing to work for free. (There are even some students who pay for their internships.)
The number of unpaid internships has steadily increased in recent years, prompting questions about the legality and ethics of unpaid internships. Last year, the U.S. Labor Department released a list of six criteria that must be met for an unpaid internship to be legal, and some states launched investigations into internship programs.
Some university officials worry that cracking down on unpaid internships could mean fewer opportunities for students hungry for real-world experience. But researcher Ross Perlin says colleges and universities have failed to "inform young people of their rights or protect them from the miserly calculus of employers." (For more, read his recent New York Times op-ed, "Unpaid Interns, Complicit Colleges.")
What do you think?
On April 28, I was online with Ross to chat about the future of unpaid internships. We were joined by Alan B. Morrison, a dean at the George Washington University Law School who hosted a conference last fall called "Regulation of Unpaid Internships: The Uncertain Future."
I encourage you to read the full chat transcript, but here are a few of the things we discussed:
How does Congress get away with not paying their interns a dime? I’m just stunned about this, because essentially what they are doing is restricting the job applicants to people with rich parents. Maybe that’s my answer, but I’m cynical.
Ross Perlin: Your cynicism is completely justified. Congress has specifically exempted its own interns from the law. They preach job creation but in reality run a patronage mill allowing the well-connected and the well-heeled to land the majority of internships on Capitol Hill.
If interns are unpaid, do they still have the same workplace protections as paid employees? What happens if an unpaid intern is injured on the job or sexually harassed?
Alan B. Morrison: Federal laws providing those kinds of protections have generally been interpreted to exclude interns because they are not “employees.” The court cases reaching that result may be correct given what the laws say, but Congress should surely change those laws to protect anyone, volunteer or paid employed, from sexual harassment or injury on the job. Fixing the pay issue for interns is more complicated and has many aspects to it that are intension with one another, but there is no reason for Congress not to fix these other worker protection laws.
What industry would you say is the worst offender of unpaid internships and why?
Ross Perlin: Overall, the so-called “glamor industries,” including film, fashion, publishing and the media, are among the worst offenders. Smaller businesses are less likely to pay and offer structured training than larger ones.
Does there need to be more oversight on how these unpaid internships are regulated?
Ross Perlin: I think the current regulations provide a starting point, and what’s needed now is more enforcement. Interns themselves need to step forward, report illegal situations, and demand backpay. The system will only begin to change if a few people are willing to stick their necks out.
Do unpaid internships unfairly favor rich kids and what can the more lower- and middle-class kids like me do about it?
Ross Perlin: This is definitely the vicious cycle that many young people are caught in: you need experience to get experience, and the only way in is to offer up your labor for free. If paid internships are too hard to get it in your particular field, you can still distinguish yourself in other ways, through regular paid work, talking to and networking with relevant people, learning particular skills, job shadowing, research, registered apprenticeship (depending on the field), and straight-up hustle. I think employers will still take note of talented, ambitious people even if they haven’t done internships.
Okay, let’s say I want to report illegal activity of not being paid... how do I go about reporting that?
Ross Perlin: First take a look at the six-point test and evaluate your internship versus that and collect any evidence you can to support your case. Speak to other interns in the workplace, if possible, and see if you have the same issues and can file your complaint jointly. Then contact the department of labor in the state where you’re working: most have a website, a phone number, or an office you can drop by. This is usually a better idea than going straight to the federal level. If you want to speak to a lawyer, find an employment lawyer in your area: one way is to go the website of NELA (the National Employment Lawyers’ Association) and do a search.
Shouldn’t colleges encourage interns to provide feedback on the learning/working balance and disbar hosts that demand revenue-producing work product, just as those who fail to actively teach?
Ross Perlin: There are some feedback mechanisms that colleges use, like internship diaries, but they seem to be insufficient, and the blacklisting of employers by schools is very rare indeed, almost always for very egregious violations. I agree that there needs to be better communication, even things like rankings for intern hosts/employers, so that students can make more informed decisions and be aware of what they’re getting into. And so that employers will have an incentive to improve what they’re doing.
Again, you can read a full transcript of the chat, here. (Note: Some of the questions and answers above have been edited for length, typos and clarity.) Every Thursday at 1 p.m., I host an online chat called Campus Overload, where we discuss all sorts of topics relating to campus life. Make sure to stop by!