Future of Unpaid Internships Remains Unknown
Until this year, most of Randy Young's experience was in construction, football, and politics—none of which made him a prime candidate to work in theater. But after being drafted into a Tom Stoppard play for extra credit at Grand View University, the political science major realized he had an affinity for the arts.
Young, 23, was required to do an internship as part of his major, so for his last semester of college, he interned at the Des Moines Social Club from January to May. In between classes, he worked about 10 hours a week managing events, sitting in on meetings, checking emails, and meeting the crème of the Des Moines theater scene. And he wasn't paid a penny.
"I was struggling with being broke and thinking, 'Man, I wish I was paid,' " Young said. "But the people you meet and the contacts you have, it outweighs making 10 bucks an hour."
Requiring interns to work for free draws questions of fairness—and may break the law. The controversy over unpaid internships escalated recently when a federal judge in New York ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime laws by not paying interns who worked on production of the 2010 movie Black Swan.
The decision by U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III may lead some companies to rethink whether it's worth the legal risk to hire interns to work without pay, some experts say.
That would be a dramatic change in fields where unpaid internships have become standard, including the arts, social services, and communications. Unpaid internships can be highly sought-after positions that help people get a foot in the door of prestigious offices, learn the ways of a new discipline, or fill out a thin resume.
"These are not summer jobs," said Mary Bontrager, who organizes an intern networking group at the Greater Des Moines Partnership. "These are summer career experiences."
Questions raised over social inequity
But many people believe unpaid internships come at a price, for students and society. Some universities require students to intern for credit, which can require payment of thousands of dollars in tuition. The cost of living during full-time summer internships goes up as students flock to cities where the best opportunities in their fields are located—fashion in New York, government in Washington, D.C.
And students who can't afford to go without compensation might have to sacrifice a better career opportunity for a job that pays minimum wage.
Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, an internship needs to meet six criteria to go unpaid. One of them requires that the intern "does not displace regular employees"; another that the employer "derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern." That should mean that making copies and filing, necessary but menial tasks that staffers are typically paid for, are out.
"The companies really have to look at what they are having these interns do," said Loni Pringnitz, director of career services at Iowa State University's College of Human Sciences.
Speaking out against unpaid internships that don't meet the federal criteria used to be considered a "job killer" for plaintiffs, said Maurice Pianko, a New York attorney who has filed seven lawsuits over unpaid internships and worker exploitation. But as more interns come forward, he is seeing a shift.
"We're seeing a surge of interest from former unpaid interns," Pianko said. "I think the stigma is gone, and honestly, the stigma is on the corporations intentionally misclassifying unpaid interns."
The U.S. Department of Labor hasn't yet taken a stance on whether the ruling will change or add to the criteria. Career counselors say it's still too early to know the full implications of the decision. But some worry it will limit the number of opportunities available to students.
"I would love to see every single intern paid," said Laura Wilson, assistant director of career services at the University of Northern Iowa. "But some nonprofits in particular where our students intern, can't afford to pay those students, and those students are gaining really powerful skills."
Positions prized, even without pay
Jana Klauke, director of MBA Career Services at the University of Iowa's Tippie School of Management, said reform could happen on an industry-by-industry basis, with resistance in some of the most competitive fields.
"In sports administration, they have 1,000 in line to get in the door to work for the Chicago Bears," Klauke said. "So if one person goes in and says, 'I'm not doing this unless you pay me because it's a violation,' there are 999 people behind them saying, 'I don't care. I want my foot in the door.' "
For those organizations that do follow the rules, internships can be mutually beneficial, the organizations and their interns say.
"Part of what happens in an internship is we're not expecting you to come in and be able to do the job when you walk through the door," said Matt McIver, artistic director of the Des Moines Social Club. "There really should be an educational component in an internship, and you should be able to get value for your time."
Contributing: The Associated Press
When is no pay OK?
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the following six criteria must be applied when determining whether an internship can be unpaid:
1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.