Unpaid Interns: Learning Experience or Illegal Exploitation?

Unpaid Interns I read Ross Perlin's recent editorial in TheNew York Times, "Unpaid Interns, Complicit Colleges," with great interest and not a small bit of dismay. As an employment lawyer who has represented employees for 25 years, I wasn't surprised to see that so many for-profit employers are still getting it wrong. The sad truth is that most unpaid internships at for-profit companies are probably illegal.

What did surprise me was Perlin's observation that so many colleges and universities are willing to look the other way at this practice. Yes, internships can be a great opportunity. But in this economy I think it's downright un-American that some unpaid internships are being used to exploit our young people and rob paid employees of their jobs. Fortunately, it's also illegal. The Department of Labor has made it clear that this sort of exploitation won't be tolerated.

It looks like some career office or guidance counselors might not tell you what an unpaid internship is and is not supposed to be. Students may assume that the career office wouldn't list an unpaid internship opportunity if it didn't comply with the law, but that's not a safe assumption.

Because so many students will be starting their internships in the next few weeks, I wanted to tell you about some top signs that your unpaid internship might be exploiting you:

  • Not a learning experience. You're supposed to be getting training similar to that you would receive in a vocational school -- something you could use in a future career. If you're filing, stuffing envelopes, answering phones, or just doing donkey work, that work has to be paid. Your internship assignments should build on each other so you develop more skills, similar to the way each chapter of a textbook builds on the other.
  • More benefit to your company than you. This is where most intern programs are an epic fail. If the company is getting most of the benefit, then you have to be paid. You should be getting training that benefits you, and you should be getting more benefit than the company. If they can make money off what you're doing, or if you're saving them from having to pay another employee, you probably have to be paid.
  • You displace a regular employee. That's a huge no-no. If you do the work of a regular employee, take a position they'd normally pay for, or, god forbid, actually replace someone they lay off, you have to be paid.
  • Little or no supervision. If you aren't being closely supervised and are left to work mostly on your own, you're probably an employee who needs to be paid.
  • Guaranteed job. I know, I know. You'd love to have them promise you a job at the end of your internship. But if they guarantee you a job once you complete your training period, you're likely a trainee and must be paid.
  • Surprise! No money. It has to be crystal clear to the intern when they're hired that there's no pay. If the employer sprung the no-pay status on you after you started, then you need to be paid. If you didn't understand going in that there would be no pay while you're training, then you're probably entitled to be paid.

If your employer got it wrong, they could have to pay your wages, any overtime, liquidated damages that equal the wages they failed to pay, and your attorney's fees. If your internship isn't what you thought it would be, and the opportunities promised don't pan out, you can come after them in two years, sometimes three, for the unpaid wages. That means that you may be able to wait to see if you get that job offer before you sue. You can sue on your own behalf and on behalf of all the other interns who didn't get paid.

Signed a waiver of your right to be paid? It probably won't hold up, so talk to a lawyer about it.

Sure, internships can be fantastic. Many students get college credits, learn lots, and then end up with jobs as a result of unpaid internships. But never, ever, let an employer exploit you. Before you accept an internship, get a clear understanding of your job duties, whether you'll be paid, and what the employer expects of you.

If you're not going to be in a great learning experience, then turn it down. It's your time.

Most employers will tell you that time is money. So make sure you get your money's worth out of your internship. Otherwise, you can spend the summer taking classes, getting a paid job, or going to the beach instead of wasting your time.

If you think your employer is violating the law, or if you're being asked to sign a contract saying that you won't get paid for your internship, my best suggestion is to contact an employment attorney in your state and find out about your rights.

A summer is a terrible thing to waste.

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