October 24, 2023

WEIRENS | How to Navigate the Potential Underbellies of Your Internship

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Recruiting season is in full swing at Cornell. Students are signing contracts, accepting offers and getting hired in preparation for the coming summer. It’s exciting, and many students feel a sense of relief to have their summer internship lined up. It’s not particularly easy getting an internship, especially at many of the elite companies Cornell students aim for. Upon receiving an offer, many students are just so thrilled to get one at all and apprehensive about losing it, that they accept the terms of their employment at face value. 

But you can’t forget: The company, the man, he isn’t on your side. At the end of the day, many internships exist solely to get every hour of work out of you for as little pay as possible. It’s a common, unsaid practice of companies to abuse the idea of the internship being a “learning experience,” to pay their workers ridiculously low salaries. 

Many young interns go into their first few summers of work in the white collar world believing that their employers have their best interests at heart; sadly, this isn’t always the case. It’s important to be prepared and aware of the different labor laws and common practices that are relevant to you as an intern. 

It begins with the contract you sign. For starters, read through it before signing, and try to completely understand it. If you don’t, solicit advice from someone with a bit more experience in the workplace. They may be able to read the fine print with more of a critical eye and greater clarity than a newbie. Does it outline an end date in addition to a start date? If not, it’s likely not for your flexibility; the company will have the flexibility to effortlessly discharge at any time, for any reason. This may not be anything you can control if you want the job, but it’s good to be aware of it. 

Compensation should also be mentioned in the contract. This is when it gets murky. It may seem straightforward for the employment contract to specify an hourly rate, but what about overtime pay and number of hours worked? If there’s no mention of overtime pay and/or hours worked per pay period there is a possibility you could be expected to work well over the standard 40 hour work week without overtime pay. If you don’t appreciate surprises and/or have a robust plan for your life outside of this internship (perhaps another job not taking place during normal working hours at a living wage to pay for college) it will be very important to understand this before signing an employment contract. Also, state and local employment laws can differ based on where you are located, so don’t assume that your overtime wages (or lack of) will be handled as they were in previous jobs you may have held. 

A common workaround is for managers to insist tasks must be “done at the end of day,” regardless of the time and feasibility of completing the task within the day timeframe. Many internships have a 40 hour a week cap on what they pay you, and without overtime pay, this adds up to a lot of free labor during the evenings and weekends. In-person questions about the acknowledgment of you working overtime, that if answered means they have to actually pay you overtime, can be easily dodged by supervisors. 

Many interns don’t feel empowered enough to press further in a more formal way, afraid of seeming greedy or difficult. However, it’s critical for you to set clear expectations for hours, compensation and overtime at the beginning of the internship, because if anything is vague in any way, it will not work out in your favor in the end. 

If the contract doesn’t promise an hourly rate, but gives a flat rate for the entire summer, tread carefully and do your research: Does the company have a high turnover rate? Do you get any days off? Will they pay you anything if you take a few sick days? Will they work you to the bone? Will you see the light of day all summer? Look on sites like Glassdoor and Reddit, but also try to find someone who was an intern at the company to discuss their experience. 

If you sign your contract and begin work, your organization will likely have some kind of online tracker where you can record your hours for your employer to see. It seems like a pretty solid system, but it’s critical that you also have your own system to track your hours. Employers are legally allowed to edit your hours before sending them to their accountant without your knowledge, and can skim off hours each week without you really knowing what’s going on. 

The math won’t add up in the end, but you’ll be unable to pinpoint and advocate for yourself unless you have your own record of hours. It sounds ridiculous, but sadly it does happen. This is why it’s also critical to make sure your employers are providing you with pay stubs. They are legally required to do so, but if your employer is editing your hours, they’re probably not sending you a biweekly or monthly pay stub and are just hoping a young intern won’t make a fuss. And they usually don’t. So make sure to ask for your pay stubs if you’re not getting them, and reconcile the numbers with your record of hours worked. 

It’s also worth your time to figure out how taxes work. As a student living in one place, going to school in another, and working in another, income taxes can be very complex. You don’t need to be an expert, but it’s good to have some familiarity with it, because some small organizations don’t outsource their tax work. It could be as janky as a receptionist multitasking, making your withholding calculations in between cleaning up the coffee area. The intricacy of multi-jurisdictional tax work is often misguidedly handled by employees ill-equipped to proficiently manage this. Even if you fill out your employment forms correctly your withholding can be mishandled. 

Therefore, if you are working at an organization that handles payroll taxes on their own, it’s important to know how you want your income tax withheld and to effectively communicate this (in addition to merely completing employment forms) if it makes sense for your situation. Otherwise, you could get negatively surprised when you receive your Form W-2 in January. Trying to recover taxes potentially withheld in multiple states could become a complex multi-state affair that will likely result in hefty tax preparer/software fees that exceed any withholding refunds that you are entitled to. Trust me, it’s worth it to make sure it’s done right in the first place. 

Additionally, don’t be afraid to use existing resources. Cornell Career Services are a valuable asset and exist to help students like us navigate the working world. You can schedule an appointment at any time, and they also have a helpful Canvas page that explains all things career and workplace. You can also reach out to Career Services if you’ve had a bad or shady experience with an organization, because they internally track such things to warn future students and can also launch an investigation if so desired (if you want to take things a step further, the Department of Justice can also launch an investigation). Other universities should have similar resources available to their students. 

And finally, know that it’s ok to exercise some degree of assertion. Many students make the mistake of not being assertive enough because they’re scared of losing their internships to more obliging candidates. Furthermore, many young people fear that they may seem greedy, entitled or annoying by pursuing the measures I’ve discussed, and there certainly is a fine line to walk. Just remember that you can still make a positive impact and impression on your employers, while making sure you’re compensated fairly and maximizing your own experience. 

Aurora Weirens is a third year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column The Northern Light illuminates student life. She can be reached at [email protected] 

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