NPR Story
9:27 am
Fri July 5, 2013

Is there a future for unpaid internships?

Originally published on Mon January 20, 2014 5:40 pm

Hear more about the arguments on both sides of this debate. Will unpaid internships survive this recent rush of lawsuits?

A slew of recent lawsuits has put a spotlight on the issue of unpaid internships. Rulings from a federal court in New York have removed any ambiguity, saying that the majority of these positions are illegal. But, does the court’s decision reflect the reality of the marketplace?

Madelaine Britt, a second year journalism student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, says her unpaid experiences have been valuable and it would be a shame if other students didn’t get those opportunities.

“It has built my resume, it’s made me have the connections that I have today that I wouldn’t have even been considered for because I was so young in my educational life. So, no, I think they are important and to think that they would be done away with I think would be a disappointment for a lot of young students.”

Britt says in the current economic climate she’s often told she won’t be able to get a job when she graduates. The one thing that could make a difference, she says, is an unpaid internship.

“You have to make the decision, what’s going to help me in the long run and if you have to choose being a barista at night and working at a newspaper for free during the day, sometimes you just have to make that choice.”

Alison Green runs the blog, Ask a Manager, a kind of “Dear Abby” for workplace issues. She says unpaid internships come up a lot in her column and for her, they’re integral to finding that first job.

“Work experience is so valuable and it really differentiates candidates who are getting interviews and getting job offers from recent grads who just aren’t getting that and who are facing long-term unemployment or underemployment,” Green says. 

She says the recent lawsuits and resulting publicity will make some companies wary, and that may mean they'll be less likely to offer unpaid internships.

But, that won't result in a higher number of paid positions, she says, just less experience for students and young grads.

“Anything we do that limits the opportunities available to them, that limits the experience they are able to put on their resume, is going to give them a harder time in an already very tough market.”

For those opposed to unpaid internships, the tough job market is reason enough why good work that benefits the employer shouldn’t go unpaid.

Eric Glatt was the plaintiff in the court case against Fox Searchlight Pictures which got this whole conversation rolling.

He claimed that he, and other interns who worked on the 2010 ballet thriller Black Swan were doing the work of paid employees and should have been compensated for that work. In the end, the court agreed.

Speaking on a conference call after the decision was handed down, Glatt said the near universal acceptance that young people should work for free is unacceptable.

“One of the important aspects of this problem is the fact that it’s become so normalized people don’t even think twice about calling someone who should be a paid employee an intern on a job posting and suddenly thinking that’s sufficient not to have to pay wages.”

With estimates of upward of 1 million unpaid interns across the US economy in any given year, Glatt says it’s time the issue was addressed.

“It’s time for people to really take a hard look at this and start recognizing it for what it is, and it’s just become an institutionalized form of wage theft.”

Despite the illegality of most unpaid intern positions, Bob Park, director of the career development center for the Simon Graduate School of Business says they’re unlikely to go away.

“It’s very tough in a market like this to present a resume that has very little on it, let’s put it that way. So it gives you some sort of an advantage, it gives you some sort of an edge.”

Park says there are situations in which employers take advantage of a student’s need for experience. But, in most cases, he says, students are the ones initiating relationships with companies.

Prior to the Fox Searchlight case, the common interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was that a person had to be gaining more from the transaction than the employer for the position to be unpaid.

Now, the New York federal court ruling says for unpaid positions to be legal, the position has to be purely educational with no benefit to the employer.

All that aside, Bob Park of the Simon School says it should come down to intent.

“If a candidate pursues a firm, an employer because they’re hungry, really that employer’s intention is to help. If an employer actively seeks out a candidate, then their intention is to get some free labor.”

Student Madelaine Britt says she’s always been the one to approach employers.

But, she says all students and grads going into those positions need to know what the parameters of the intership are, and make clear that they have expectations of their employer too.

“I’m a huge supporter of unpaid internships if they’re the right unpaid internships. And by right I mean, what are they asking you to do? Does it have any relation to the career choice you’re going for, or are you just getting them coffee?”