News flash! Unpaid internships may be illegal

On several occasions this blog has raised concerns about the legality of unpaid internships, despite the widespread use of this practice.  My basic point has been that many unpaid internships appear to violate federal and state minimum wage laws.

Of course, for years college and graduate students have signed on as unpaid interns with private, non-profit, and government employers.  Now, with the bad economy, many unemployed older workers are working for free as well as a way of re-entering the labor market or maintaining a presence in a profession.

Finally we’re seeing some attention being drawn to this form of exploitation:

Economic Policy Institute policy paper

Yesterday, the Economic Policy Institute released a policy memorandum authored by Kathryn Anne Edwards and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez,  recommending policy reforms concerning unpaid internships:

Despite internships’ importance to the labor market as a crucial form of vocational training and pre-employment vetting, they are only loosely regulated through vague and outdated employment law. Moreover, these regulations go essentially unenforced. . . . In light of these outcomes, this paper contends that the current system of regulations governing internships must be reformed, both for the immediate protection of students’ rights and also to maintain a strong and vibrant labor market that compensates all workers fairly.

Steven Greenhouse piece

Today, the New York Times ran a piece by labor reporter Steven Greenhouse questioning the legality of unpaid internships:

With job openings scarce for young people, the number of unpaid internships has climbed in recent years, leading federal and state regulators to worry that more employers are illegally using such internships for free labor.

Convinced that many unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws, officials in Oregon, California and other states have begun investigations and fined employers. Last year, M. Patricia Smith, then New York’s labor commissioner, ordered investigations into several firms’ internships. Now, as the federal Labor Department’s top law enforcement official, she and the wage and hour division are stepping up enforcement nationwide.

***

EPI policy memorandum

Greenhouse article

Previous post on unpaid internships

My 2002 law review article, “The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns”

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