Unpaid internships valuable, but must also be regulated

The semester is quickly drawing to a close, but that doesn’t mean the learning will be over by a long shot: A large number of USC students will spend their summers working at internships in their respective fields of expertise — of which many will be unpaid. Many students see unpaid internships as “paying dues” in an industry and providing prospective employers with a trial employment run. These unpaid internships are increasingly becoming the equivalent of part-time or full-time jobs. The fact remains, however, that unpaid internships are not only time-consuming for students whose time may be at a premium, but are also grossly advantageous to the companies who employ them.

Zach Schonfeld of Newsweek wrote an article last week stating that unpaid interns are not legally entitled to rights protecting employees, including basic civil protections against sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Schonfeld cited the case of Lihuan Wang, a Chinese national who was an unpaid intern for Phoenix Satellite Television in New York City. Wang, who was sexually harassed by her supervisor at Phoenix, filed suit against her employer. Wang’s case was then dismissed in court on the grounds that as an unpaid intern she was not technically an employee of the company. The case exposed a legal loophole wherein employers could subject unpaid interns to discrimination and sexual harassment with relative impunity.

Though D.C. and the state of Oregon have protections in place to provide basic rights for unpaid interns, the state of California has yet to adopt such legislation. In Dec. 2013, Lydia O’Connor of the Huffington Post reported that Democrat Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (Berkeley) would be introducing legislation in California to protect unpaid interns. But the law has yet to pass.

The debate on whether or not unpaid interns deserve similar basic protections as employees is not actually a debate — or is it? Cameron Keng argued that interns should be paid, if only because it protects companies from liability in lawsuits with regard to currently existing legislation regulating the extent of an unpaid intern’s duties.

Keng posts that interns are provided “the opportunity to build [a] resume,” and that interns ought to be paid if “they’re going to be entitled and possibly slap [companies] with lawsuits.”

There’s a troubling aspect of Keng’s statement here that actually reveals the crux of the problem with unpaid internships: Companies rely on the “hunger” or competitive drive of applicants to make it through hostile work environments. They rely on the “don’t ask, won’t tell” aspect of employment in order to take advantage of the free labor. Complaining about a hostile work environment or a lack of pay, in the eyes of those who share the views of Keng, is “entitled” behavior. Those who speak up for their rights face being labeled as a “whistleblower” or someone who “can’t stand the heat.” And nobody, including the writer whose name appears in the byline for this article, wants to be “that guy or girl.” But something needs to be said for the protection of basic rights for unpaid interns.

There’s a saying that nothing comes free, but the labor a company enjoys from an unpaid internship comes pretty damned close. So why not provide these workers’ basic rights? Shouldn’t a worker have the right to speak up after being inappropriately touched or interacted with in the workplace, in the context of a professional relationship, and not having to worry about losing his or her job, or worse, his or her reputation and opportunities for future employment?

On the flip side, unpaid internships can provide once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Students have undoubtedly heard stories of the types of real-life professional experience they can gain from working at a big-time company. But all unpaid internships are not created equal, and the fact that unpaid internships are seen as an opportunity to get “a foot in the door,” reducing employment to a socioeconomic war of attrition, doesn’t make it more comforting.

The wisest compromise, of course, is an appropriate balance: no student should feel compelled to take on unpaid internships. The reality of the U.S. current job market, however, necessitates that interns “put in the work” to find out whether or not they are a “proper fit” for an organization. But legislation needs to be established that protects the rights of these workers.

The deceptively simple solution of paying these interns is actually not so simple: the amount of time required for “training,” which usually entails explaining legal procedures and reporting policies, can eat up valuable time and cost employers a considerable premium.

The current state of unpaid internships, however, is unacceptable. No worker, paid or unpaid, should have to worry about basic workplace rights. It’s time the California state legislature, and all states without such protections, move forward to establish the appropriate protections for unpaid interns.


Euno Lee is a senior majoring in English Literature. He is also the Managing Editor of the Daily Trojan