Have We Reached the End of Unpaid Internships?

Have We Reached the End of Unpaid Internships?

“Suck it up.”

That's what they tell you"”and you tell yourself, over and over"”when you end up strapped down into a menial, fax-sending, paper-shredding unpaid internship. It's no surprise that in an economic downturn, many companies and organizations are relying more heavily upon the work of these sucker-uppers, finding their desires to enhance resumes and make contacts a perfect opportunity to receive free labor. Two years ago, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 83 percent of graduating students had held internships, up from 9 percent in 1992. Some experts estimate that one-fourth to one-half of all those internships were unpaid.

There is no doubt that internships like this are a great way for young college students and post-grads to get their feet in the door, and who are employers to say no to wage-less workers who are eager to prove themselves?

Well, soon, it might prove more beneficial to those employers to turn down the opportunity, as campaigns are mounting to stop what government officials believe is an abuse of the system: countless violations of the six federal legal criteria that must be satisfied in order for an internship to be unpaid. Facing violators are hefty legal troubles involving discrimination laws, workers’ compensation, state and federal taxes, benefits and unemployment insurance coverage, in addition to fines and legal bills.

It turns out that all those unpaid internships spent photocopying, sending e-mails for bosses and making coffee may not be, in fact, legal. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division, an internship can only be unpaid if the "employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer's operations may actually be impeded." Essentially, an intern cannot contribute to the work output of a company for free"”the only legal unpaid internship would be one where the intern basically was the only one receiving any immediate gain. In a time where many internships, especially in fields like film and journalism where most of the student and post-grad work goes unpaid, this clear violation may come as a surprise.

Among the rest of the stipulations, the labor department also requires that the intern not replace any employee, and the training he or she receives must be similar to that of a vocational school or academic educational instruction. Speaking to the New York Times, Nancy Leppink, the acting director of the labor department's wage and hour division, lays out the situation simply: "If you're a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren't going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law."

While labor departments in states like Oregon and California have been issuing out guidance letters explaining to companies that they are breaking the law and unearthing numerous abuses in court, many employers argue that the Department of Labor's six criteria are out of date. In fact, the criteria arose from a Supreme Court decision in 1947 and haven't been revised since.

The issue of legality is proving divisive among government officials and employers, and the mounting campaign against violators and the call for revision are at odds"”throwing the unpaid internship, a new cornerstone of college and post-grad work, up into the air. Could this be the end of sucking it up for the sake of your resume?