Experts question legality, but students will still work for free

Despite questions about the fairness and legality of unpaid internships, students shouldn’t expect to find any more paid internships this summer than in previous years.

Many companies that are trying to maximize production while minimizing costs are placing increased responsibility in interns’ hands. And with a 10.4 percent national unemployment rate, young people eager to gain access to careers are willing to work for free.

According to USC Career Planning & Placement Center Executive Director Eileen Kohan, about 60 percent of the university’s students hold an internship sometime during their USC career.

“The feedback we are getting from employers is that having work experience is more important than grade-point average,” she said.

But for students from low-income families, taking unpaid work often means trading an opportunity to earn money for the possibility of better earnings later. And now, in a time when unpaid internship opportunities are booming, some are questioning whether organizations are taking advantage of ambitious students as a way to deal with their economic woes.

A 1947 Supreme Court decision outlined six factors for determining if an internship results in a relationship that would require the intern to be paid minimum wage and be entitled to overtime pay and regular breaks.

An intern who pushes wheelchairs at a hospital could be replacing a nurse’s job, according to Kerry Fields, a professor at the Marshall School of Business and an expert in business ethics and corporate responsibility. If the intern meets professionals, gets exposure to the hospital environment and receives an education about how to treat disabled people, however, the internship appears to mainly benefit the student. It’s training that can be carried into many different future settings.

Fields said legal unpaid internships should be geared toward training and not assuming an employee’s regular duties, though the company might generate some collateral benefit.

“Where unscrupulous employers take advantage is having you do work activities that have a benefit primarily to them,” Fields said. “Having you file papers so the employer saves costs of hiring a file clerk is illegal.”

Instead, Fields said interns should be cycled through the roles of several full-time employees. Still, he said the standard for being paid is subjective because one has to define an experience’s value.

The U.S. Department of Labor has ruled that unpaid internships should be extensions of academic programs under close observation and should not replace regular jobs.

To make unpaid internships seem more beneficial to students, companies often require students to receive academic credit. This is not legally necessary, however.

“The law doesn’t absolutely require it, even though it is packaged that way,” Fields said. “Credit gives employers some validity and assurance to hide behind.”

USC allows students to earn credit through various internship courses from one to eight units. Interns put off by USC’s $1,300-per-unit price can receive less expensive credit from institutions such as community colleges. During the summer, USC provides scholarships to help subsidize the cost of these courses.

The Dream Dollars Program provides $1,200 stipends for students who receive unpaid internships with non-profit or government organizations. The Scheyer Family Scholarship provides $2,500 to unpaid interns majoring in the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences. Applications for both programs are due Friday.

“We are very conscious of the fact that money does cause a barrier, but students can use the career center to help find foundations and other ways to get past this,” Kohan said.

A number of students, however, take unpaid internships without ever registering to receive class credit.

Liz Trawick, a senior majoring in psychology, is working as an unpaid intern for a city councilman, though she has not registered for a class to receive credit.

“I’m doing a lot of work, but the city has no money, so that’s probably why I’m not getting paid,” she said. “As a student, it’s reasonable not to be paid, but not being a student and not finding anything paid is unreasonable.”

Juhae Lee, a freshman majoring in industrial and systems engineering, has an unpaid internship with a public relations firm for which he is mainly doing graphic designing. Lee also does not receive academic credit for his internship.

“It’s benefitting me more than the firm, though, because before I just had Photoshop, but they have pushed me to learn how to use it, and now I’m solid with it,” he said.

Drew Holly, a senior majoring in music industry, held an internship with a recording company and took two four-unit internship courses through USC.

“I learned a lot even though I was only really setting up equipment and helping with recording, and the class was hardly a class,” he said.

Students have different feelings as to whether they should be paid.

Kyle Manis, a sophomore majoring in business administration, had a paid internship with Verizon but is now seeking an unpaid Congressional internship.

“It’s not as much about getting paid as it is about learning, because the pay is really just a bonus,” he said.

For Lee, the costs of traveling to the Beverly Hills firm are adding up, and he said he thinks he should be compensated for work that the company takes credit for.

“It’s not just like I’m getting coffee for them,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to pay for or buy your way into the opportunity to show off your skills, but what can you do about it?”

In California, any employee can file a complaint with the state labor department about unfair treatment of interns, but it is mainly the intern’s decision to allege he is being taken advantage of. Because students and employees fear being blacklisted as troublemakers in their industry, the burden of enforcement falls to the government.

Fields said students simply need to be better educated about the laws, and the federal department of labor has vowed to increase outreach with students and colleges.

2 replies
  1. George
    George says:

    I’m very glad that publications are finally examining the discriminative nature of unpaid internships. Even for people from solid middle class backgrounds like myself, working an entire summer for free can be a very unrealistic prospect, especially in these hard economic times. While there will never be an “end” to unpaid internships, I think more regulation is definitely necessary. All they really accomplish is one more step of privatizing our country’s entire educational system. Simply getting into and attending college is a serious financial endeavor. Now to have another roadblock thrown in the track in the form of unpaid internships and their professional importance…it’s quite discouraging.

    • Joe
      Joe says:

      What’s your complaint, exactly? Nobody should be allowed to do an unpaid internship because you personally can’t afford it? If you force all these jobs to pay minimum wage, one of two things are going to happen: (a) the internship will be canceled because it isn’t worth it to the company, or (b) the company will hire an actual qualified adult instead of a student who wants to learn on the job.

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