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.


Stephen Colbert on Unfair Internships (again)

February 29, 2012
Money quote:
“You don’t have to be a college student anymore. An employer can just call you an ‘intern’ and then not pay you!”
“We had these in the South 150 years ago: cotton internships.”
(Wish I could embed the video, but my provider does not allow it.)

A debate about unfair internships

February 5, 2012

The New York Times is hosting a debate about unpaid internships (side note: I really wish having been more successful at promoting the use of “unfair internships”). So far, five people have shared their opinion, four against and one in favor. There is Ross Perlin, well-known as the author of Intern Nation, who describes the recent evolution (degradation) of internships. There is Alex Footman, who is suing Fox Searchlight for his own experience as an unpaid intern and who’s making the argument that enforcing the law is he government’s job, not his (agreed). Then, an employment attorney makes the simple point, argued here too that internships are “a valuable idea, if we follow the law”. Raphael Pope-Sussman makes the case that unions should take up the fight to enforce the law and restrict unfair internships (in the UK, the Trade Union Congress does it).

This is all good and thoughtful, but let’s look at the dissenter’s argument. David Law, founder of Above the Law (I’m not joking) makes this interesting argument:

But unpaid internships are more a symptom than a cause of economic weakness. They are so popular right now because many employers, large and small, simply don’t have the ability to create new, full-time, paid positions.

Oh, that’s what it is! The employers really, really want to pay their junior staff, they just can’t afford it! Oh well then. They should pass on the idea to all companies that are going bankrupt: stop paying your staff if you can’t afford it, it’s no big deal. David Law then caps it off with this gem:

In the end, the status quo, while imperfect and inconsistent, may not be that bad.

What he apparently does not realize is that there is no status quo: the situation is getting worse, as Ross Perlin demonstrates. Who, 20 years ago, needed to go through some 5 internships before getting a paid position?

It’s good that the New York Times take up this issue and it’s even better to see that it is so hard to find a good defense of unfair internships.


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.


How can the financial crisis benefit internships?

February 8, 2009

If internships are done according to the law,”the employer provides the training and derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the student”. You would expect that during a recession, employers can’t afford to train interns while cutting off staff. Then how can it be that we ran into this quote in the Columbia Spectator:

“As there are fewer jobs to go around, there are more internships available”

Because unfair internships are un(der)paid jobs, not proper trainings, that’s why. And since students compete against each other to enter the job market, they are even more desperate these days and will lower their standards.

As jobs become more scarce, the importance of internships seems to have grown, as applicants feel a greater need to polish their resumes. “I see students who feel that one internship is not enough.”

And once everybody has their two internships, this will become “two is not enough” and then three. Where will it stop?

Unfair internships are a large-scale illegal practice hidden in plain sight.


Excepting Areas Related to Compensation

January 14, 2009

It’s really not that difficult to understand why the mainstream media talks so little about unfair internships.

All aspects of the official Employee Handbook also apply to interns at the [New York] Sun, excepting areas related to compensation.

Would the Employee Handbook (capitalized, wow) prevent an intern at the New York Sun to write an article about unfair internships?