Unpaid internships are just not worth it

August 6, 2012

If you think you need an unpaid internship to get a foot in the door and then a job, I’d like you to meet reality:

The [National Association of Colleges and Employers] released a study this week showing that 60% of 2012 graduates who worked a paid internship got at least one job offer, while just 37% of those in unpaid gigs got any offers. That’s slightly – only slightly – better than the offer rate for graduates who skipped internships entirely, at 36%.

It is no better than no internship at all. Being paid on the other hand is much better, 62% better. And that’s for all unpaid internships, not to mention unfair internships where you surely get no on-the-job training.


A Twitter list against unfair internships

November 19, 2011

It is important for people who fight unfair internships to create a network and support each other. This is why I have a Resources page that list the groups active in this field. And I just updated my Twitter list where there are now 16 accounts. You can follow the entire list at once by clicking the button at the top of the list. Post your suggestions in the comments below or tweet them to me @exintern.


Internships: The Scandal of Britain’s Unpaid Army

November 15, 2011

The Guardian has two excellent articles on the scandal (their word) of unfair internships. Internships: the scandal of Britain’s unpaid army makes the point that internships are not an option.

With youth unemployment approaching the one million mark, getting to the first rung of the employment ladder has never been harder for Britain’s young people. As competition grows so too have the barriers, including the need to have experience of the workplace before securing a paid job.

Gone are the days when a week’s placement during the school holidays at your parent’s company could make your CV stand out. Now school leavers and even graduates are expected to have months of varied experiences to cut the mustard at interview. The problem, civil servants admit, has become endemic.

Even more interesting is Interns work – and should be paid, lawyers warn ministers:

Thousands of unpaid interns could be entitled to compensation after government legal advice emerged suggesting employers are breaking the law by not following national minimum wage rules.

It is no surprise that someone with legal background sees the travesty of unfair internships, but it is quite pleasant to see the government’s lawyers acknowledge it.

All this activity in the UK is cause for optimism. Much the way that rock and roll then rap became respectable as their fans grew older, it is possible that as more victims of unfair internships get in position of power (including writing for The Guardian), the more crackdown there will be on the practice (cue in The times they are a-changin‘).


Interview with an employment lawyer

August 2, 2011

As evidence that law firms are starting to see the issue for what it is, Yasinski & Jones, LLP in Los Angeles, California, recently set up a website, InternshipLaw.com, to reach out to employers and interns. We hereby give the floor to John Carrigan, employment attorney with the firm, who answered our questions.

What gave you the idea to focus on this issue?
Having worked at several unpaid internships while I was in college, the issue has been in the back of my mind for years. Also, I practice in Los Angeles, which is home to a lot of unpaid internships in what you might call “glamour” industries like entertainment, public relations and fashion. A lot of these employers are very clear about expecting interns to perform real, substantive work for no pay, but no one seems to do much about it. I saw that as an interesting niche area for my practice.

What do you bring to it?
What I hope to bring to the issue is an ability to see the issue from both sides of the table, with a focus on the realities of the workplace. For instance, I try to look not at what “opportunities” an internship might present, but at what the interns are actually doing during their workday. Oftentimes, that may be something else altogether.

Do you think that employers are generally aware that unpaid internships are often illegal?
In my experience, most employers who improperly utilize unpaid interns don’t realize that they’re violating any laws in doing so. Many employers (and interns) believe, incorrectly under U.S. and California law, that there’s no obligation to pay an intern so long as he or she receives academic credit. Some other employers believe, also incorrectly under U.S. and California law, that they can get around an obligation to pay simply by getting a signed acknowledgement from the intern that the position will be unpaid.  

Why do you think that illegal internships are so common?
I think the biggest reason, at least in the U.S., would be that there’s been no real headline-grabbing case in which an employer was hit with substantial liability because they didn’t pay their interns. As a result, there’s a lack of familiarity with the law on both sides, and many interns have no idea they might even be entitled to pay, particularly where they’re receiving academic credit.

For those interns who do believe they’ve wrongly been denied pay, there is also the fear of retaliation. Interns tend to view their internships as a door into full-time employment in their chosen field, and a lot of them believe that filing any wage claim, or even simply asking to be paid, would mean they’d be somehow blackballed from an entire industry. Personally, I think that fear is vastly overstated. 

Is it difficult for you to convince employers that their internship program may be illegal?
Rather than describing a program as “illegal,” I’d be more likely just to explain that, based on the program as it is currently structured, there is a legal obligation to pay the interns. Under both U.S. and California law, in order for an internship for a for-profit employer to be unpaid, the employer has to satisfy six specific criteria, one of which is that the employer does not receive any “immediate advantage” from the interns’ work. Frankly, it is very rare that an intern’s work would not provide such an advantage to a for-profit employer, and most employers understand this once they take a look at the decisions interpreting the law.

Do you find that the courts understand the issue?
I think that they would, but very few of these cases go all the way to trial. Instead, the vast majority of wage claims are resolved out of court, generally for amounts that are kept confidential. 

Any interesting cases that you could share?
An opinion came out in California last year [NDLR: see LACBA, July-August 2011 (PDF)] regarding an internship program organized by a non-profit group called Year-Up, Inc.. Year-Up placed interns in short-term positions with for-profit employers as part of a curriculum meant to provide the interns with technical skills.  Although the interns were not paid a minimum wage, the employers actually paid more than $22,000 per intern to Year-Up to sponsor the program. The opinion concluded that interns involved in that program did not have to be paid because each of the six factors had been satisfied, but its discussion highlights just how many hoops a California employer must jump through in order to lawfully utilize unpaid interns.  As a result, from an employer’s perspective, it will often be more efficient just to pay interns the minimum wage rather than go through the hassle of establishing an unpaid internship program that complies with the law.


“Cheap labor”, a.k.a. the intern

March 12, 2009

The Onion once again nails it with a funny piece about internships:

In tough economic times, employers relish the term, “cheap labor,” a.k.a. the intern. Full of vigor and promise, the intern works hard for little or no money.

Oh wait, it’s not The Onion, it’s AdvertisingAge. Not funny.


Virtual internships – virtually real jobs

March 6, 2009

From an article in The Examiner about virtual internships:

When we interview for virtual internship positions, we are really looking for two things. First, interns need to be self-starters. Because they won’t be in our office each day, I need to know that they will be diligent with deadlines, make good use of their time and come back to me if they have the ability to take on additional projects,” said Woofter.

I wonder what makes these positions “internships”?


Unpaid internships: common but illegal

March 5, 2009

Another labor lawyer looks at unfair internships, another layer finds an illegal practice. Michael Tracy:

A common, but frequently unreported labor violation is the use of unpaid interns in violation of minimum wage and possibly overtime laws.  The scenario is fairly typical: a company offers an opportunity to ‘break into the business’ in exchange for the intern working for free.

He also provides his perspective on college credits in return for job experience:

Some companies try to get around the law by requiring that the internship be part of a college program.  However, there is no exception to the law allowed just because the “intern” may receive college credit.

He also has an interesting opinion on the lack of lawsuits:

The main reason that you do not see more lawsuits regarding unpaid internships is that the interns are very unlikely to sue.  In most cases, they fear being blacklisted, as they will undoubtedly need to use the internship as a reference to get any future work.

I would add that interns see their situation as a transition. By the time they file and win a lawsuit, they will have moved on to a proper job. They won’t benefit from their effort. But the law has provisions to address this problem, at least in California:

This is where California’s Private Attorney General Act comes in.  Because this law allows anyone at the company to sue for labor violations, even if they themselves are not affected by the violation, it is now possible for these companies to be brought into compliance with the law.  If you work for a company that uses unpaid interns and would like to put an end to this illegal practice, you should consider bringing a Private Attorney General cause of action.

So if you’re an employee that’s been displaced by an unpaid intern, you have the law on your side.