The legality and ethics of unpaid internships

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)

7 responses

  1. The only issue I have with this is you are equating the intern receiving compensation in the form of money.

    This model of ‘apprenticeship’…which in essence it is when considering volunteering/internship in one’s chosen profession…is as old as history. And I would argue they are receiving compensation – experience.

    If we mandate payment we limit the opportunity, especially in economic times such as these.

    There has to be some flexibility and ultimately the decision needs to remain between that of the unpaid intern and the person utilizing their services.

  2. Susan, thanks for your comment. I think it’s the label of “intern” that allows a business to get away with not paying someone for work. Most internships are not true apprenticeships — they are a form of genuine labor. And all too many internships have lousy supervision and mentoring.

    The rationale that giving someone experience excuses an employer from rendering compensation is a scary slippery slope to me, one that is being realized as we speak with the many experienced but unemployed professionals who are working for free because they cannot find paying jobs.

    As I said in my post, I’m willing to cut public and non-profit employers more slack. However, when it comes to for-profit businesses, volunteer internships smack of exploitation and furthering economic class advantage. If they will not pony up even the minimum wage, then the folks in corner offices should look at their own salaries and ask if this is the right thing. Maybe a few well publicized lawsuits will do the trick as well, although hopefully they will come from people who do not plan to work in that profession in the future!

  3. I got my BS in CompSci in 1987, and at that time, there were no entry-level jobs for programmers. My only fellow-classmates who had jobs were working in sales or tech support.
    I went to a non-profit agency and volunteered to do some database work for free, and they rounded up a project. After a while, they came through with a grant for $1000. It took me about three months to do.

    I also low-balled a contract for a distribution company, to work on a database application for them.

    In both cases, it took me months to do what I could have done in three or four weeks had I known what I knew after I had finished the projects.

    In six months, I was the only person from my graduating class that was actually getting paid as a professional software developer.

    As always, the people who sit back and wait to be told what to do, and then collect their money at the end of the week, are more likely to have trouble earning an income than those who are more aggressive in figuring out ways to make themselves useful.

    Connections and luck are also very important, and if you can rely upon either of those, then this is not as important.

    But, if you can’t you need to be more assertive about making sure you are developing your skills, and be less concerned, in the beginning, with making money, and more concerned with developing your skills and marketability.

  4. regarding ‘the legality and ethics of volunteer internships’

    Hi David,

    Is it possible i grab your email address in regards to this topic??

    Thanks David
    Kind Regards
    Kelly Gates

  5. Thank you for mentioning this issues. I am an artist and a recent graduate trying to find work in the creative fields. While I had internships begining in my junior year of college, I thought that soon after school a resume and an excellent academic record would be sufficient to find paid work in a matter of time. With the fear of the weak economy, all of the entry level work in the fine arts has been ceded to interns.

    I worked for a emmy award winning documentary film production company which was using 70% – 80% interns, supervised by 2 paid employees, to do the bulk of the research and scouting, and PA work needed to staff the production. I was told, as I’m sure many of the other were, that this would lead to a stipend and possibly future employment. Of course, because we were laborers that the company couldn’t afford, and not truly interns, what I would consider to be 1 or 2 people who are being trained, fostered, and taught, while contributing their help, this never came to fruition.

    I believe the systems that are in place are extremely prejudiced against those without outside economic resources, and frequently exploitative even against those who are. I hope that more attention is drawn to this issue.

  6. Pingback: News flash! Unpaid internships may be illegal « Minding the Workplace

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