Yet again, thousands of fresh-faced college kids — or newly minted political-science B.A.s — are flocking to Washington to perform that seemingly unavoidable professional ritual: the summer internship.
Some of them will write legislation. Some will make copies. But whether they build careers or stare out of windows, unpaid or low-paid interns make great sacrifices to work in offices where they can’t demand minimum wage or file sexual harrassment suits. Is this legal? And is it worth it?
As new interns flood every Starbucks on K Street and Capitol Hill, let’s desconstruct tall tales about who they are, where they come from and where they are going.
Once upon a time, internships were a rite of passage just for young doctors. Beginning in the 1930s, the practice spread to other white-collar fields, from public administration to insurance. Still, even in the early 1980s, internships remained rare — as few as 3 percent of college students completed one before graduation. Today, that figure is as high as 75 percent. Although earlier internships tended to be paid, the internship boom of the past three decades has seen working without compensation go mainstream. And internship experience is now a prerequisite for many white-collar professions.
It’s a prerequisite many can’t afford. Too often, paid internships are the preserve of well-heeled students at four-year colleges with family connections. A 2010 study by the research firm Intern Bridge found that students from families earning more than $120,000 per year were more likely to be in paid internships at for-profit companies than students with family income below $80,000, who were more heavily represented in unpaid positions. “So many of them are executive referrals,” one executive at a major television studio told me, highlighting the role of nepotism in the internship program she runs.
For the 80 percent of undergraduates who also work regular jobs, an unpaid internship can be a serious financial stretch. Landing a summer position in a pricey internship hub such as Washington, New York or Los Angeles means shelling out thousands of dollars in rent and living expenses — and in some cases, an ad hoc purchase of academic credit.
Far-sighted companies use internships to recruit the best and brightest for full-time positions. In 2007, Ernst & Young offered jobs to 98 percent of its interns. But in general, the high cost of labor, not career development, drives demand for interns. Many arts organizations, fashion houses, publishers and media outlets take on a slew of interns without plans to hire any — or to help them get hired elsewhere.
I met many serial interns while researching a new book. One man in his mid-20s supported by his parents had interned at three nonprofits, going 20 months without a paycheck. “What stands out about the enormous amount of time I spent working for no money is that I can barely remember anything I did,” he told me. Another serial intern, an aspiring stage manager, had interned her way through 15-hour days at four theaters across the country, never earning more than $150 a week.
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.
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.
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.
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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