Unpaid internship guidelines aim to protect, but mostly for employers

unpaid internship guidelines help employersAt the risk of beating what by now might seem like a dead horse, I can't help but revisit the subject of unpaid internships this week – especially now that I've taken a closer look at the guidelines issued by the Department of Labor on the subject.

Probably because I work with students all day and consider myself an advocate for them, and because much of the debate on the subject lately has been sympathetic toward students doing unpaid work (including Joe Grimm's well-written piece on the Poynter Institute for Media Studies' website), I thought the new guidelines would be written with an eye toward protecting interns.

In truth, though, the guidelines put out by the Wage and Hour Division of the federal labor department seems designed to protect the employer more than anyone. Keep in mind that I'm someone who does see value in unpaid internships, and has worked with multitudes of students who have genuinely appreciated these experiences.

The guidelines, encompassed in what the Department of Labor titled "Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under the Fair Labor Standards Act,'' aim to help determine whether "for-profit'' private sector employers must be paid minimum wage and overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act. To make this determination, six criteria should be considered. If all of these are met, the labor department says, an "employment relationship'' doesn't exist, and the labor standards act's provisions don't apply. But these criteria are hardly onerous:

1. "The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an education environment.'' This guideline should be relatively easy for employers to meet – or even exceed. Even the most basic experience in a field should be able to educate an intern about the field, and accentuate a classroom experience. Indeed, in some cases that I've seen, the internship experience has had the unexpected result of showing a student that the career they thought they aspired to is not, in fact, what they want to do with their life.

2. "The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.'' Hmmm. If an employer can't effectively meet this broad, simple requirement, then surely they don't deserve an intern.

3. "The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.'' A tight economy should be no excuse for pushing aside experienced, paid employees in favor of temporary unpaid interns. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine that a new employee – paid or unpaid – who is on on-site temporarily and usually for limited hours, while juggling classes, homework and perhaps another job (or even two), could effectively rise to the level of an existing, experienced employee.

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.'' The first part of this point is a little hard to swallow. The employer should derive no immediate advantage from the intern's presence and work? A smart, productive intern can enhance a workplace, and sometimes even bring ideas about new, efficient ways to do things. At the same time, it seems reasonable and expected that, yes, interns might make mistakes or require training that will slow things down for employers in the short term.

5. "The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.'' Nobody should feel "entitled'' to a job, I'd guess, in this economic climate. Unfortunately, even long-term, full-time employees these days can't necessarily count on keeping their positions.

6. "The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the internship.'' This of course does need to be spelled out from the very beginning – when the internship is publicized, and during the interview process.

Aside from the legalities for compensation-for-work, what some employers might not realize is just how far even a token of appreciation can go: A modest stipend paid at the completion of an internship can go a long way. Even an occasional free lunch, or a public transportation pass, can help someone feel appreciated. And while an internship experience can, in and of itself, provide value in the long-term, an immediate thank-you never hurts.

No government agency can legislate tact and graciousness, but common sense should dictate that both should be used liberally when dealing with co-workers, whether unpaid or not.

Jennifer Halperin is the internship coordinator at Columbia College Chicago, and Money College's Internship Insider. Her column runs every Wednesday; send suggestions for story ideas to Jennifer at MoneyCollege@walletpop.com.
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