Interns as Modern Beasts of Burden

Imagine this: You’re working at a secretary’s office for the week. Your employer walks in with a handful of work to be filed, paperwork to be sent out, phone calls to be made and “thank you” letters to be typed and sent out to 40 different clients. Oh, and don’t forget that warm coffee that you have to make for your employer in addition to countless other errands you have to run. Now imagine this: You don’t get compensated for all the effort you put into your work. Sound familiar?

The legality of unpaid internships has raised several questions and sparked debate. The Fair Labor Standards Act makes it clear that unpaid internships are designed to allow interns to utilize their skills in a workplace without replacing a current employee’s position. Unpaid interns should also receive some sort of personal enrichment through a series of vocational-related training sessions.

Recently, state officials have conducted investigations to see whether or not this guideline is being followed properly. State officials are also investigating employers that deliberately try to hire unpaid interns to profit from free manual labor. Many employers have not met the six requirements of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act necessary in the hiring of interns. Additionally, there is a growing trend of using unpaid interns for other purposes, leaving students with no options but to stick to internships for the experience while being hit hard financially.

There is a fine line between what it means to be an unpaid intern and what it means to be an employee. According to the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, employers must meet the following guidelines when deciding to employ an intern: 1.) The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school; 2.) The training is for the benefit of the trainee; 3.) The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation; 4.) 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; 5.) The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; 6.) The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training. If those six requirements are not met, interns are considered to be employees who should be compensated at least minimum wage.

Internship training should teach the trainee tasks that they can apply to the real world. It cannot directly benefit the company or the employer; rather, it should serve as an educational benefit to the person being trained. In this way, the employer does not have to pull money out of his or her own pocket to compensate an individual who is willing to do the same work as an employee for free. Instead of being obligated to pay interns, most employers grant students college credit as an easy way out.

For example, it is illegal for employers to exploit and make unpaid interns conduct menial work or anything that profits the employer.

It is difficult to work an unpaid internship with the skyrocketing costs of college tuition and other fees incurred in school. If you are like most college students, you don’t have additional money out of your pocket to salvage while working at an unpaid internship. In order to get your foot into the door, employers look for candidates that have internship experience. For low-income students or those faced with minimal financial parental support, it is difficult to work as an unpaid intern because there are no financial benefits other than the intern experience. The rising costs of tuition may divert students’ attention and cause them not to apply to unpaid internships. This in turn separates those that are well off from those that are struggling financially. Not everyone can afford to intern at an unpaid internship, especially if you’re faced with providing yourself with sustenance and financial support.

Some people believe that unpaid internships open up opportunities and doors for better high-paying jobs because they show that you are dedicated and able to work under stress. However, it is unfair to work at the same level as someone who has a full-time job, gets benefits, and does the same work as you.

Students with financial problems and minimal aid from parents struggle with the idea of applying for unpaid internships. It is hard to cover the cost of tuition, food and housing when you are giving up your personal hours for free labor. Current unpaid interns have kept their voices in the dark for fear that it is not worth ruining their chances of receiving experience or moving up a step to a better job. It is unfair to let employers take advantage of free labor. If you are unpaid for work that you are clearly not advancing from, it turns out to be more of a job than an internship.

An internship is something that helps you grow and apply your educational skills to benefit your future endeavors. Employers should consult the Fair Labor Standards Act and decide whether they have crossed the line when defining what are considered unpaid and paid internships. Being unpaid for hard work and countless hours you can never get back is unfair and exploitative.

Send comments to newuopinion@gmail.com.  Please include your name, major and email.