Is The Unpaid Internship Dead? Not So Fast

young woman carrying two trays of stacked coffee cupsBy Lauren Berger

Are unpaid internships dead or more popular than ever? Are they a waste of time or the best use of time? The debate has been going on for years, but last week, a court ruling was issued against Fox Searchlight that is creating ripples. Two unpaid interns who worked on the set of "Black Swan'" had sued the studio, and last week, the judge ruled in their favor, saying that Fox Searchlight should have paid the interns since they were functioning as regular employees.

A few other lawsuits have been filed previously, and other large companies –- including Warner Brothers and Viacom –- have begun paying interns, a development that a few years back no one would have believed could happen.

Full disclosure: I had an unpaid internship at Fox during the summer of 2005. It was a fantastic experience -- and not just because of the Hollywood "glamour" factor. I found Fox to have one of the most structured company-wide internship programs I'd ever seen (and I did 15 internships in college). Fox provided their interns with company-wide "intern breakfasts", mentor opportunities, and an executive lunch series. (Fox does pay interns now.)

So what does this ruling mean for interns and the companies that employ them? I wasn't part of this lawsuit and know only what I've read about it. But this is what I've been able to glean from it:

Unpaid internships are still legal as long as they meet six criteria. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, interns can be unpaid providing:

  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 educational environment.
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
  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.
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

How many hours unpaid interns can legally work isn't clear. The two interns who originally filed the lawsuit claim to have worked long hours, without pay. Unfortunately, there are not clear guidelines for employers or students. Unpaid interns aren't covered by overtime laws, but if they're working a ton of hours and not being compensated, they can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division. This is a gray area that certainly needs clarity.

More:Highest Paying Internships Aren't On Wall Street Anymore

Doing menial work should be expected. In the Fox Searchlight case, the judge found that the students did routine menial tasks, like photocopying and making coffee, which would have been performed by employees if the interns weren't present. That, he said, meant that the interns should be paid as employees. But here's where I am not clear: Doing menial work can also be an "educational" experience that benefits the intern –- which are among the requirements for unpaid internships. For example, if you work on a talk show, you must know how to "take care" of the guests in the green room (bringing them coffee, getting them set up and prepping them). Everyone starts somewhere and an internship can be where you learn the glamorous and not-so-glamorous side of the workplace. If the opportunity were all just the fun stuff, I'm not sure it would be that great of a learning experience.

The ruling could be a good thing. It could raise awareness -- making employers cognizant of what they need to offer interns, and making students aware of what to expect. And it may even make these internship programs a higher priority, which would benefit everyone.

Lauren Berger is known as "The Intern Queen" and is chief executive officer of She is the author of the National Campus Bestseller, All Work No Pay: Finding An Internship, Building Your Resume, Making Connections, and Gaining Job Experience (Ten Speed/Random House), and arguably the nation's most in-demand career/internship expert. She has been internationally recognized for her work with young people and her entrepreneurial spirit has attracted millions of job and internship seekers. Recently, Berger has appeared on "Today" and "Fox & Friends," as well as in The New York Times, New York Post, Teen Vogue, Bloomberg, LA Weekly and more. She regularly contributes to AOL Jobs, USA Today, The Huffington Post,, Justine Magazine and more.

Lauren Berger: Career Resource Entrepreneur

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