Suing Over Unpaid Internships: The Debate Rages


Once again, the heat has been turned up on the issue of unpaid internships. This time, instead of just a scathing indictment against unpaid internships, we have actual lawsuits.

This latest lawsuit against the “Charlie Rose” show has once again sparked an intense debate on a listserv for internship professionals, and others in the arena, including the Intern Queen, have weighed in with their opinions. So, where do I stand on this issue?

First, there are clearly some issues with the recent string of lawsuits. As several people have noticed, it appears to be one law firm involved. Out to make a quick buck perhaps? There is also some concern with timeline. The intern in question with “Charlie Rose” worked there during the summer of 2007… close to FIVE years ago! Why the wait? These are troubling details.

The argument being made by university internship professionals is that none of these internships were done for academic credit, so they didn’t have a university’s blessing as an “appropriate” unpaid internship or a structured academic side to the experience. Some of these contributors strongly oppose students participating in internships on their own (i.e. in employer-defined internships) and are calling for a stricter definitions.

Fundamentally, I am not a fan of unpaid internships. In a good internship, an intern is doing real work and adding value, so the student should be compensated for it. Then there are industries where it’s just wrong, like the entertainment industry. I’m sorry, but if you make billions of dollars for making a movie, you can afford to pay interns minimum wage. Just sayin’.

However, unpaid internships are a reality, and whether an internship is for credit or not is largely irrelevant to me. I have known of several specific students who completed unpaid, uncredited internships and had excellent experiences that have launched their careers. These were high quality internships, and the students were making their own informed decision to participate. Should they have been paid? From a legal standpoint, yes…

Ultimately, I believe it is important for students to 1) know their rights and 2) understand what makes a “good” internship.

With next week being spring break, there will be no post on the UW-W Internships Blog. And on Monday, April 2, I will be featuring an Intern of the Month (YAY!). But for my April 9th and 16th posts, I will touch on these two topics.

It does no good to simply freak out about the issue. What’s important is to get solid information into the hands of students, the ones who ultimately get to make the decisions.

What’s your opinion on these internship lawsuits? How do you feel about unpaid internships in general?

Photo by thethreesisters