Intern insurrection: Editorial

Friends have suggested to me that I offer my labor for free – or on a volunteer basis – in hopes of landing a job.  I’ve volunteered before. When I volunteered to join the Navy, I was paid a basic wage.  Years later, I volunteered at the local animal shelter in my hours away from the office.  I knew I would not be paid and did the work because I care for the cause.

Recent studies have shown that unpaid internships do not lead to employment – for the recent graduate or the older worker who is trying to gain entry into a new industry. Employers may not value the employee who is willing to work for free and is not likely to offer them a paid position at the end of the internship.


Intern insurrection: Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial BoardThe Star-Ledger
on June 23, 2013 at 6:30 AM, updated June 23, 2013 at 6:31 AM

Who would have thought all these lawsuits would suddenly sprout up against such venerable intern-mills as the New Yorker, W Magazine, Atlantic Records and Warner Music group? The idea that they should be required to pay their interns actual money for hours worked — what a novelty.

This is shaping up to be the summer of intern discontent, starting with the legal victory this month of two unpaid interns who did menial work on the set of the Natalie Portman movie “Black Swan.” The film buffs, both with advanced degrees, demanded back payment for their “production” work. Which, as it turned out, revolved chiefly around the production of coffee.

That, and assembling furniture, fetching lunch and basic accounting tasks. How is it, they wondered, that the makers of a film that grossed more than $300 million could not even pay them minimum wage?

A U.S. District Court judge agreed. These internships had no educational value, he said, and only the studio benefited from the work. That makes them illegal. Receiving academic credit is of little importance in determining whether interns should be paid, but there must be a clear educational benefit to the intern.

So yes, you can have an unpaid internship — but only if it meets certain criteria. (See chart.)

Fair labor standards were created to prevent private employers from abusing people, whether they’re janitors or college students. That’s the whole point of our minimum-wage laws. Yet these days, almost half of all college graduates have had an unpaid internship, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

About a third of internships at for-profit companies are now unpaid. These internships keep multiplying because they benefit the employer, who gets free labor, and often the intern, who gets résumé padding and sometimes valuable experience in an otherwise weak job market. Unpaid interns save employers about $600 million every year, author Ross Perlin reports. So what’s the big deal?

Disgruntled interns who feel snookered aren’t the only ones losing out here. The biggest loser is the paid worker who gets displaced. This is someone who can’t afford to work for free, including students who aren’t well-to-do or well-connected. They can’t get the same leg up with coveted employers because they have to find minimum-wage jobs somewhere else, such as McDonald’s. Then they wind up not having the work experience that’s now required for an entry-level job.

Unpaid internships are only further fracturing our society into the haves and the have-nots. These lawsuits show we shouldn’t just accept that as a fact of life. Employers now do so at their own risk.

The Test for Unpaid Interns

For-profit employers don’t have to pay their interns if these six criteria are met:

1. The internship is similar to training that would be given in a vocational school or academic institution

2. The experience is for the benefit of the intern

3. The intern does not displace regular paid workers

4. The employer derives no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities

5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the
conclusion of the internship

6. The employer and the intern understand that he/she is not entitled to wages

Source: U.S. Department of Labor


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