September 18, 2017

GROSKAUFMANIS | Who Pays the Price of an Unpaid Internship?

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Sometimes I wonder why students who want to go into government, advocacy work or international relations are running around campus in suits for recruiting, bending over backwards for jobs that many openly admit that they have no interest in pursuing. I’m then  reminded these corporate jobs actually pay, and they pay well — and that alone is more than can be said for many internships in government, advocacy, or international relations.

About 50 percent of college students work at an internship or co-op position at some point during their college careers. Of those students, 47 percent find experience in positions that are unpaid. To us, this may sound innocuous, but it is worth noting that among those students who worked at for-profit companies, one-third weren’t paid, raising a tricky issue of compensation.

A simple and obvious case to make is that it’s unfair to not pay someone who is working five days a week, eight hours a day, contributing to an organization. That’s a perfectly valid argument, but it’s also somewhat incomplete. Many employers invest in creating programs that are valuable educational experience for their interns, an effort that takes money and effort. In this light, unpaid internships simply require students to match that investment. But for every college student working hard without pay at a non-profit, a research lab or even a federal government agency, there are students who are qualified for and would love the same experience, but reasonably can’t afford to post up in some distant city all summer without any income.

“For me, student debt is absolutely a factor I consider while searching for a summer job,” said one student I talked to. “The experience I got bagging groceries obviously didn’t make me as marketable as a job at the State Department would have, but one pays and the other doesn’t. That’s life.”

And there you have it. Few would contest that the current system often takes advantage of student workers while tilting the experiential playing field towards those who have money.

I spoke with a California employment attorney who has litigated cases before various state and federal courts (including the Supreme Court), and has represented plaintiffs ranging from professional cheerleaders to McDonald’s employees. Her bottom line with respect to unpaid internships? In some cases, they’re not only a bit unfair, but also illegal.

“From a legal perspective, it’s not okay, but people do it with a wink and a nod because that’s the way to get experience,” she said of for-profit employers who hire unpaid workers without satisfying the criterion mandated by federal law. “At the end of the day, the cycle continues because you have students that are able to work for free, and companies that are willing to take their chances.”

The desperation to develop an impressive resume — or the legitimate desire to get out there, learn and try out a job in the real world — coupled with the obvious benefit employers receive from what is essentially free labor creates the perfect storm for the status quo to persist.

That being said, it’s not like the world is an arena of equal opportunities in the first place; wealthy people have clear and obvious advantages well before they start applying to niche internship positions. But at a school where we’re taking the same classes and allegedly (or ideally) being oriented toward the same opportunities,it’s important to at least try creating wider avenues that connect students to relevant work experience regardless of financial background. So what are some potential solutions?

For-profit companies should pay their interns. If you are profitable, workers who contribute to that surplus should be compensated. That’s not just my personal opinion; in many cases it’s the law. It’s opportunistic for one-third of intern-hiring, for-profit companies to exploit the pipeline of eager students looking for job experience, and to limit the pool of students who can even consider applying by edging out those with financial constraints. I cut nonprofits slack because many of them literally don’t have the resources to pay their interns, but also because nonprofits aren’t subject to the same laws regarding compensation.

That being said, I don’t anticipate that these companies are going to change their practices anytime soon. For this reason, I see the Cornell network as the most viable space for possible change. Grants and stipends are essential, and literally make the difference between accepting or declining a  dream job. Students would benefit from more funding opportunities, but also from more widespread advertising of existing grants and info about which students are eligible to apply. Full disclosure, I worked at an unpaid internship last summer. It was an incredible experience, and one principle reason I was able to work there was because I was awarded a grant to cover my commuting costs. An alumni saw that there was a need, and he personally created a fund for students like me. If that grant hadn’t existed, I would have essentially had to pay to go to work, which was not only infeasible but also would’ve been kind of ridiculous.

At a time when income inequality is reaching historic levels, it’s particularly important to confront systems that undermine equal opportunity — even if their impact seems negligible on the surface-level. Previous lawsuits haven’t adequately addressed the issue, and I wouldn’t guess that we’re on the verge of any real traction in terms of public policy change. That being said, there are ways for us, as a university, to begin levelling the playing field. The first step is becoming aware that there’s a tilt.
Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jgroskaufmanis@cornellsun.com. The Dissent appears alternate Mondays this semester.