Pushing back against illegal unpaid internships

My appearance on The Colbert Report and an earlier blog post about unpaid internships have generated a lot of thoughtful comments and some heartbreaking stories about how hard it is to find a paying job today, even with a graduate degree. I’d like to respond to some of the comments, remind readers that this is an international problem, and point out some resources for interns who feel abused by their employers.

First, the comments. A few readers were still confused about what is legal and what isn’t, and about what legal changes I am advocating.

Certain nonprofits do not have to pay volunteers, including interns. I think there are ethical problems with nonprofits that pay their executives hundreds of thousands of dollars a year but can’t scrape up the funds to pay their interns the minimum wage. And I think it limits access to full political participation and social mobility when entry-level positions in government or nonprofits are taken by the sons and daughters of well-off parents, who support them while they work unpaid. Working class and poor kids don’t have that option and will be denied important opportunities if congressional and executive branch internships or internships in nonprofit organizations that are pre-requisites for formal, paid employment are unpaid. But I am not advocating changes in the law.

Rather, I am calling for enforcement of the law as it already is and for employers to abide by the law, which says that work performed for the benefit of a private sector, for-profit business must be paid at no less than the federal minimum wage ($7.25/hour). In the District of Columbia, Santa Fe, N.M., San Francisco, and in many states, the minimum wage is higher than $7.25 an hour. Unpaid internships in for-profit businesses are already illegal unless they meet every element of the strict six-part test provided by the U.S. Department of Labor.

My blog post sparked a lively debate about the role of universities in promoting unpaid internships. One commenter, Heather Krasna, disagreed strongly with my statement that “universities have a cozy deal collecting tuition for semesters in which their students get farmed out as free labor to employers.” Heather’s response? The fault lies with employers, not the schools:

“The deal with college credit is not that it benefits universities. It absolutely does NOT benefit the universities. The reason students have to take credits for internships is that employers believe that it absolves them of the 6 prong minimum wage test– i.e. if a student gets college credit for their work, they are no longer an unpaid slave laborer, instead they are a “trainee” and the internship is proven to be a “learning experience” (i.e. college credit=proof the internship is not a job). So, the reason universities often allow/accept students’ getting credit for unpaid internships is that the university is being directly and loudly pressured by students who want desperately to get work experience and are being told by an employer that they can’t work for free unless they get credit. Universities, rather than telling their students that they are not going to be allowed to get relevant work experience, cave in and push their faculty to offer credit to avoid students (and their parents) from making a fuss that the university “is standing in the way” of the students’ career experience.”

But another commenter, FiredCareerCounselor, disagrees and puts the blame squarely on the schools:

“Make no mistake that unpaid internships are advocated by institutions of higher education as a means of generating huge revenue by exploiting students.  The college where I work recently mandated internship for ALL students. When I expressed concern about the legal and ethical ramifications, I was replaced. Even at our small, public university, students leave with staggering student-loan debt.  To think we’re MANDATING a work-for-free policy, is shameful.  Here’s hoping for precedent-setting in the Hearst case, so students can earn tuition money via internship, and career centers can return to the business of getting students jobs, not volunteer positions!”

Ross Perlin, in his seminal book, Intern Nation, cites Gina Neff, a professor at the University of Washington who has studied communications internships and calls internship tuition credits a significant revenue stream for colleges and universities. “It’s a dirty little secret” that internships represent “a very cheap way to provide credits…cynically, a budget balance.” But whether universities are being thrown into the briar patch or climbing in themselves, the result is the same: Students are effectively forced into paying for work (by paying for course credits) that they ought instead to get paid for doing. And as commenter Courtney points out, students from economically challenged families find themselves at another disadvantage:

“Like many other facets in American culture, these are truly “luxuries” of the economically stable. It simply puts forth another disadvantage for impoverished children who might be forced via university policy to obtain one of these internships, when, in reality, they need to work for wages out of necessity. It is incredibly callous, elitist, and stereotypically American to assume that all parents have the financial resources to sustain their children through months of unpaid work.”

On a related issue, commenter BS complains that the coalition government in the United Kingdom has been forcing unemployed workers to accept unpaid work with for-profit companies as a condition of receiving unemployment benefits. This outcome is precisely what I and many others fear could be the result of Georgia Works and the Bridge to Work experiments that will be conducted as part of the recent congressional deal to continue the emergency unemployment compensation program. Programs of voluntary free labor such as Georgia Works have a disturbing tendency to turn into mandatory programs.

Ironically, the coalition government in the U.K. has taken a strong and principled stand against the exploitation of unpaid interns. The government is cracking down on employers in the fashion industry and successful lawsuits have been brought against media companies, some of which have required entry-level employees to work for free for six-to-nine months as interns, in violation of the British minimum wage law. I hope that the Obama administration will eventually follow the lead of its supposedly more conservative ally and crack down on illegal internships in the U.S.

Finally, commenter Wps32axe wonders what effect unpaid internships have had on high school students. High schools used to run co-op programs where students would be released from school for several hours a week to work in local businesses as a way to learn about the world of work in a supervised, structured setting, while getting paid. I can only imagine that whatever high school co-op programs remain are being undermined by the new permissiveness that lets employers (despite the fact that it’s illegal) hire young workers without having to pay them. Employers were already permitted to pay a shockingly low subminimum wage of $4.25 an hour to young people under the age of 20 for the first 90 days of their employment. But if college students are willing to do grunt work for free, the odds of high school students finding decent paid work diminish.

As for resources, the first one I’ll mention is the Occupy Wall Street Arts and Labor Working Group, which sent an open letter to the New York Foundation for the Arts condemning the placement of classified ads for unpaid internships at for-profit institutions. The Working Group is planning a campaign against exploitative internships. And as a public service to abused interns anywhere in the U.S., here’s the firm that filed the complaints in and is litigating the Black Swan and Hearst Corporation wage theft cases:

  • Outten & Golden LLP
    Advocates for Workplace Fairness
    3 Park Avenue, 29th Floor
    New York, NY 10016
    Tel: (212) 245-1000 x4360
    Fax: (646) 509-2087

Most states have a labor department or attorney general’s office that enforces state labor laws, including the state minimum wage, which can be $1 an hour or more higher than the federal minimum. Interns who have not been paid wages to which they are legally entitled can file complaints with the appropriate state agency. They can also file with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which has 200 offices around the country. For information about how to file a complaint, call this toll-free number: 1-866-487-9243. You can also send an email to the Wage and Hour Division and contact the office nearest you.