This summer, high-profile class action lawsuits brought on by unpaid interns against multiple entertainment conglomerates garnered significant attention in the media. The cases against corporations such as Conde Nast, Hearst and NBC Universal, among others, have led to the proliferation of intern advocate groups and provided fodder for the debate over the prudence of unpaid internships. Beyond the basic precept that all adults should be compensated for their work, there are moral and economic consequences to hiring students with no pay. Additionally, federal and state labor laws are surprisingly clear: Interns who perform useful work to the benefit of their employers are entitled to minimum wage pay.
One serious pitfall of the pervasive unpaid internship culture is the promulgation of class disparity. Most students in the U.S. cannot work for free; housing, living and tuition expenses do not evaporate over the summer. Students with the audacity to require pay for their work are unable to compete with their wealthier peers for coveted internships, and may find themselves at a disadvantage when entering the post-grad job market. As long as there are young people who can afford to work for free, there will be employers to hire them over their poorer counterparts. The societal duty to prevent this exploitation of cheap labor is why we have a minimum wage in the first place.
If there were proper oversight of minimum wage laws for interns, many employers in the private sector would be found in violation of labor standards. The Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Dept. of Labor has explicit criteria for determining internship pay in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act. An intern is entitled to minimum wage pay if the supervising employer “derives immediate advantage from the activities of the intern” or if the intern “displaces regular employees” or “performs productive work (for example, filing, performing other clerical work or assisting customers.” Employers have no incentive to expend the time and effort to train interns if they do not provide something useful in return — often the assumption of job duties that are too time-consuming or undesirable for other employees. This commonplace arrangement is not a fair trade, and it is a clear subversion of the law.
A common argument in support of unpaid internships is that they confer educational benefit and valuable work experience. Many employers have capitalized on this sentiment by offering academic credit in place of monetary compensation. But Dept. of Labor standards are clear here: While credit may be rewarded for participation in legal unpaid internships, it is not a valid alternative to pay for those internships in which an intern’s supervisor benefits. Regardless of the opportunities internships may afford students, only programs designed primarily to provide academic training are exempt from minimum wage requirements under the FLSA. Simply offering college credit in exchange for the acquisition of work experience or learned skills is insufficient to warrant exclusion.
Although the culture of unpaid internships is deep-rooted, change is imminent on this issue. On June 11, 2013, a U.S. District Court judge handed interns their first major victory, holding Fox Searchlight and Fox Entertainment Group liable for failing to pay two former interns who performed the work of regular employees. Additional similar outcomes are sure to follow. College students have been easy targets for exploitation in the job market for too long, and it is time we stand up for ourselves. Hopefully our universities will stand behind us.