A lot of people are working for free these days. Many are students who are securing unpaid internships as a possible investment in a future career. Others are unemployed and want to gain experience and contacts, so they are volunteering their time and talent. They are heeding advice by career counselors and columnists to offer to work without pay as a way of opening doors to new jobs and careers.
From a practical standpoint, I don’t blame anyone for using the internship/volunteer route to enter or re-enter the workforce, especially in today’s difficult economy. As an educator, I have given that advice many times to students and recent graduates. But I do so with ambivalence. Something is very wrong with our economic system when those who provide genuine labor are not compensated for their work. While I can understand public and non-profit employers having to rely on unpaid interns, it is wrong when profit-making enterprises do not pay at least the minimum wage.
In addition, it’s very likely that many of these arrangements — especially the common practice of unpaid internships — violate minimum wage laws. The Fair Labor Standards Act, the federal wage and hour statute, does allow exemptions to the minimum wage for those who meet “trainee” status. However, one of the requirements for trainee status is that the employer “derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students, and on occasion his/her operations may actually be impeded.” This is an awfully tough standard to meet. Most interns provide an “immediate advantage” to the employer, even if the work involves relatively unskilled labor.
It’s not necessarily the small “mom & pop” businesses that are stiffing their interns. Several years ago, in researching a law review article on the rights of student interns (see link below), I was stunned to learn that as of 2000, employers such the ACLU, Brookings Institution, CNN, Merrill Lynch, MTV, Rolling Stone magazine, Sotheby’s auction house, and the White House were among the prestigious and presumably well-financed entities whose internship programs provided no compensation. Hopefully that has changed, but even so, today there is no shortage of other employers who happily accept free labor.
We have become so accustomed to unpaid internships as a rite of passage that we ignore the significant social and economic class implications. Fields such as journalism (print and electronic), politics, and the arts are infamous for offering unpaid internships. It means that these opportunities are disproportionately limited to those who can afford to work for free.
I am skeptical that there will be any hue and cry against this widespread practice. For students, volunteer internships have become very much a part of the educational and credentialing experience, and now many unemployed folks are joining the fray. But is the minimum wage really too much to ask for anyone who is providing genuine work contributions to an employer?
For a freely downloadable pdf copy of my law review article, The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns (Connecticut Law Review, 2002)