From the Archives with an Update: Suing Over Unpaid Internships

Originally posted on March 19, 2012

Money

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.

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.

UPDATE:

The ‘Black Swan’ lawsuit has continued to make progress. And over the summer, the lawsuit started to expand. Read on for the latest details:

Judge OKs Bigger Lawsuit Over Fox’s Intern Programs (Exclusive) 

Where do you stand on this issue? I’d love to hear from you!

Photo by thethreesisters

Unpaid Internships: Criteria to Consider

Last week, I touched upon your rights (of sorts) when it comes to unpaid internships. That post naturally started to drift into the criteria you might use to evaluate a “good” unpaid internship. So in keeping with that direction, here are some qualities of an acceptable unpaid internship.

No thumbs up

  • The internship involves real work. Most internship horror stories involve unpaid internships in which interns do nothing more than fetch coffee and make copies. Every “real” job involves some amount of grunt work, so you should expect some in an internship, too. However, it should never make up the bulk of your work tasks. If an unpaid internship consists almost entirely of menial work, I would pass.
  • Your work tasks are at an intern-appropriate level. While you should be doing real work as an intern, that work should be at a para-professional level. For example, you shouldn’t be the solo in-house PR person (i.e. professional level), but you should be working with a full-time PR professional in the organization. As an intern, you are still learning and should be working under the supervision of an experienced professional in the given area. While an internship that looks advanced might be appealing, you would be making a substantial contribution that goes well beyond the purview of an internship, especially one that’s not paid. Proceed at your own risk.
  • The internship posting provides a complete description of the position. When I’m coaching employers on creating an internship, I encourage them to think about what specifically they want an intern to do and to craft a thorough job description for the opportunity. While a good internship will allow for some flexibility for your goals and for new, unanticipated projects, much of the role should be in place well before you start work. If you find an internship posting that isn’t very clear about the work you will be doing, it could potentially lead you into an abusive internship situation.
  • You will have a specific supervisor. Sometimes you might not have this information at the time you apply. If you get to the point of interviewing, make sure to ask about the supervision you will receive as part of the internship. Who will your supervisor be? What is his/her background in the field? How will supervision be structured? How will feedback be delivered? An internship is a learning experience, so you want to know who your “teacher” will be.
  • The internship is with a non-profit organization. As I stated in last week’s post, non-profit organizations don’t fall under the same “rules” and guidelines when it comes to unpaid internships. It doesn’t mean that all unpaid internships with non-profits are legit – an unpaid internship with a non-profit should still entail real work that is clearly outlined from the outset, is appropriate for a student intern, and is supervised by an experienced professional. But if you see an unpaid internship with a lucrative for-profit organization, I would question it. While some unpaid internships with up-and-coming for-profits might not be a problem (ex. with a start-up company), a large organization that makes a huge profit should have no reason to bring on unpaid interns. Despite the issues with the lawsuit, I agree that a major  studio making millions of dollars off a movie can afford to pay their interns minimum wage. There is likely no good reason for a for-profit company to offer unpaid internships. I would tread cautiously…or maybe even run away very fast in the opposite direction.

My final piece of advice when it comes to evaluating an unpaid internship – Consult. Email me or schedule an appointment with me to discuss the internship you are considering.

Photo by Adventures of Pam & Frank

Unpaid Internships: What Are Your Rights?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the wave of legal action being taken against unpaid internships. While it is confined to one industry (the media industry – specifically a TV program, a magazine, and a movie studio) and there are some questionable issues with the lawsuits, it nonetheless brings up some legitimate concerns.

Justice sends mixed messages

Are Unpaid Internships Legal?

The simple answer to the whether or not unpaid internships are legal is yes, they are legal. This is because there are no laws against unpaid internships. Of course, the issue is more complicated than that.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) establishes standards in the areas of minimum wage, overtime pay, and youth employment for full-time and part-time workers in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local government. In regard to unpaid internships, the US Department of Labor defined criteria, from an FLSA perspective, for determining whether or not an employment situation exists with an internship in the private sector (i.e. with a for-profit business/organization). If it is not deemed to be employment but is a true training opportunity, then it can go without pay.

But these are only criteria, not laws.

The “Test” for Unpaid Internships

An unpaid internship with a for-profit employer must meet ALL of the following six criteria:

  1. The work of the internship must be similar to training you would receive in the classroom.
  2. The internship is for YOUR benefit (as in you, the intern).
  3. As an intern, you can’t displace regular employees.
  4. The employer cannot gain immediate advantage from your work as an intern.
  5. As an intern, you are not necessarily entitled to a job at the end of the internship.
  6. Both you, the intern, and the employer understand that you are not entitled to pay during the internship period.

If all of these criteria are met, then there is no employment relationship and the minimum wage/overtime provisions of the FLSA do not apply. In other words, you don’t have to be paid for your work.

Honestly, this “six-prong test” is a tricky one, and no one is really monitoring the situation. Therefore, it is up to you to use your best judgement and run your own six-prong test when considering an unpaid internship.

Students’ Internship Rights

So while you might not have any legal rights when it comes to unpaid internships, there are still ethical standards that protect you. From my perspective, here are the issues to be mindful of as you consider an unpaid internship.

  • Credit alone does not make an internship experience comparable to training in an educational environment. One of the common ways employers in the for-profit sector will skirt around the issue of pay is to require you to earn credit. They figure that doing so satisfies that first criterion (of course forgetting that they still have five others to meet). The thing is that you can earn credit for a bad internship just as you can for a good one. Even better are the companies that claim that they can offer you credit and that the credit is compensation. First, an employer can’t award you credit; only a university can. Second, you actually have to pay money to enroll in a credited internship course. Earning credit and earning actual money are not equal forms of compensation.
  • Most employers offer internships for their own benefit. Let’s be honest: Why would an organization spend valuable time vetting, hiring, training, and supervising student interns if they derived no benefit at all? While I do believe that employers hope their interns learn from the internship experience, it is not likely that this is their primary reason for offering the position. The internship is not solely for your benefit. And given the short-term nature of an internship, most employers are probably hoping to gain some immediate advantage from the work you are doing.
  • Be aware that the same “rules” do NOT apply to non-profits. It is ironic that one of the biggest perpetrators of unpaid internships is government, the same folks responsible for and covered under FLSA and who essentially created the related internship criteria. From my perspective, unpaid internships in the non-profit sector aren’t entirely wrong, but they can be abused more easily because of different rules.

As a student, it’s important to understand the criteria provided by the US Department of Labor. This knowledge isn’t so you can go out and take action against questionable unpaid internships, but it’s helpful as you evaluate your internship options.

Next week, I’ll write more about evaluating unpaid internships and determining whether or not an unpaid position is “acceptable.”

Photo by Dan4th Nicholas

Suing Over Unpaid Internships: The Debate Rages

Money

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