Unpaid Internships Potentially Illegal

College Students May be Trading Legality for Experience in the Workplace


nternship duties notoriously include getting coffee for the entire office, but it turns out that these sorts of tasks violate legal criteria. (Joe Marvilli/The Observer)

Published: April 22, 2010

Consider these two lists: theft, murder, and speeding; and filing, coffee runs and mailing documents. See any similarities? Probably not.  But the truth is, like the first list, the second documents illegal activities. Illegal, that is, if you are an unpaid intern.
According to an article in the New York Times published on April 3, The U.S. Labor Department is concerned that many unpaid internships are violating the minimum wage laws.

It turns out that the intern-employer relationship isn’t simply greeting him with a soy latte every morning but is actually one carefully negotiated by a set of six federal criteria, which a company must comply with in order for a legal unpaid internship to exist.

And the criteria may be surprising (and eerily familiar) to those of us who have held unpaid internships. Included in the criteria is that the employer “derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees” and the training “is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction,” which regulators say makes menial tasks like filing, mailing packages and fetching coffee illegal tasks to be assigning unpaid interns.

“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” said Nancy J. Leppink, director of the labor departments wage and hour division, to the New York Times.

With a campus located in the internship capitol of the world, it is the norm for Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) students to hold multiple internships in their time as students, many of which are unpaid. So, are we all engaging in illegal relationships or are students finding unpaid internships that comply with the federal guidelines?

Steven Karunphand, FCLC ’10, said, “I’ve done [a few] unpaid internships and each place differs, but there are always little things that just seem to push limit.

“One [employer] had me search the city for a poker table and while I’m running around the city, calling all over, she’s calling me screaming at me and cursing… and that was one of my first assignments,” Karunphand said of his internship with a daytime talkshow. “Most of the stuff we did was bitch work. One day, I had to hand out tape to drag queens, so they could tape their nipples not to be seen which is nuts, but other days we were allowed to sit in the control room and meet an editor. I think many internships try to balance the bottom-feeder work with some more educational stuff. It’s the payoff.”

Ryan Harrington, FCLC ’11, said of his internship with a financial firm, “I have most of the typical internship responsibilities: filing, scanning documents, ordering coffee and lunch. Unfortunately, I am sometimes scolded for mistakes that I didn’t make. For example, my internship advisor was disappointed that I was unable to find a file in an alphabetized file cabinet. However, the entire cabinet was completelyunalphabetized… Eventually my manager learned that the person I was looking for was no longer a client.”

Laura Benigno, FCLC ’12, said of her internship with an independent record label, “It seems that the branch I intern for is super busy and simply disperses some of the work to the interns to lighten their load, which is good because I get to learn about all the different types of music on each record label affiliated with the one I intern for, but bad because I don’t get enough face time with my supervisors. “I’m pretty much staring at a computer with my headphones in.”

Brian Rose, professor of communication and media studies and instructor of the internship seminar at Fordham, said, “This has been a topic of perennial concern. Fortunately, we do everything possible to make certain that our students doing internships are not just glorified, unpaid go-fers. We insist that they meet with their supervisors three times during the semester to discuss their particular goals for the internship (and the supervisor’s), so that it’s clear that this is going to be a productive, valuable experience. We also make it clear to supervisors that… they have a responsibility as well to make this a vital educational experience.”

While some internships are clearly violating standards, in other cases it may not be as easy to tell, as students welcome work above and beyond intern duties since they are gaining invaluable experience in the field.

Brooke Burdge, FCLC ’10, said of her unpaid internship with an American fashion designer, “I do think I took the place of an employee, if there were to have been a general marketing assistant. I was responsible for helping anyone in the marketing department, including tasks such as filling out internal creative briefs, writing product description copy for the Web site, conducting market research online, creating presentations based off of my research and creating boards of the ‘run-of-show’ for certain smaller company fashion shows from the looks already chosen by managers.”

“I sometimes worked overtime, like when I worked the fashion week show, or when I helped set up for some event, and I often volunteered to stay late if I did not have class because I really enjoyed the work,” Burdge said.

Because FCLC has a large number of students participating in unpaid internships, professors and the administration keep a close eye on the nature of the work students are involved in.

Holly Rotchin, assistant director of career services, said, “We closely monitor what goes on to protect students from exploitive internships. We have a close relationship with our employers; we meet with them, do site visits and make sure it’s an appropriate place for students to be working.”

While Rotchin has seen intern-employer relationships not run smoothly, she stressed that career services is there as a resource to serve as a middle-man when interns feel uncomfortable bringing up concerns to a boss.

“We meet regularly with interns and touch base and we encourage open communication between the employer and the student,” Rotchin said. “While I don’t want to downplay that people do have bad experiences, the majority of students are very pleased and have valuable and rewarding experiences.”

Rose said, “Invariably, there are some internships where things don’t work out as positively as they could. In those small number of cases, we encourage students that if it’s clear that they are not getting a well-rounded experience, it might be best to try another internship. Still, Fordham students have generally had extraordinarily positive internships—productive, well-rounded and meaningful. A good deal depends, as well, on the commitment of students themselves to make it clear from the start that they are willing to work hard and to be responsible and professional. This usually leads to a mutual feeling of respect from their supervisors and more valuable work experiences as a result.”

And while some students are willing to go above and beyond their duties as interns because they enjoy the work, others seem to think that the guidelines in place are not realistic.

Tara Aquino, FCLC ’12, said, “At my internship, I don’t understand how the company not benefiting from intern work would be possible because we all willingly write and it gets published… in that sense the company and the writers benefit. So I don’t really see how the regulation would realistically work. If an intern doesn’t contribute to a company, how can that intern be succeeding at his job? I feel like the more you do for the company, the better your chances of getting hired. I think you ultimately get back what you put into it.”

Karunphand said, “I think it is a system that is beneficial for both parties, they benefited from getting free labor from me, but now that I am looking for a job I have experience that I can put on my resumé. Back when I had the internship, I was like, “Ugh, so much work,” but now I know I need that work in order to find a job, so it is areciprocal.”

“Clearly, companies expect some kind of ‘direct benefit’ from their interns, since they’re not really ‘employing’ them directly for educational benefits,” Rose said. “Nevertheless, this is exactly what we expect from them if our students are to receive college credit. So it calls for careful monitoring.”

Rotchin said, “The relationship should be mutually advantageous. An intern will be contributing to a company and to their personal growth as well. But I think [the criteria] are in place to protect the student, to ensure the company is not exploiting them. You always want to be an asset and be helpful, but of course you shouldn’t be spearheading major projects.”

Legal or not, FCLC students seem to feel that the experience gained outweighs any violations of the federal criteria.

Benigno said, “Sure, I feel I get taken advantage of, but that’s because that’s my position. I don’t feel violated in any way, I look at it as paying my dues and hope that something will come out of all this hard work. An internship is what you make of it; there’s always going to be tension between feeling like you’re getting taken advantage of (especially when you’re not getting financially compensated) and feeling that you’re an asset to the company. Either way, experience is experience, so even if I don’t get a job opportunity out of this, at the very least, I gained a lot of knowledge in the field I plan on entering post-graduation.”

“I do feel that the experience I gained from the job was enough compensation,” Burdge said. “I consider unpaid internships an investment. Although I am not paid immediately, getting workplace experience in different industries will ultimately prove rewarding since it will help me obtain a full-time job in marketingpost-graduation.”

Harrington said, “I do believe that I have learned a lot about the financial world from where I’m interning. I find that listening and watching other colleagues work and operate is the best way to gain experience and learn about a particular field. So like anything, there are always pros and cons.”

Rose said, “I can say 99 percent of the time the experiences my students have are ‘educational’ in the sense of being learning experiences, rather than secretarial or go-fer.”

Karunphand said, “I feel like in most internships you will have that feeling of being taken advantage of at one point, but if you are at a place that is professional there will be something else along the way that will make up for it. The production company threw a birthday party for me and I ended up getting a job for the summer.”

Are you working illegallyas an unpaid intern? Check out the federal legal criteria below!

1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction.
2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees.
3. The trainees do not displace regular employees but work under their close observation.
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.
5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period.
6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.
On the other hand, if the workers are engaged in the primary operations of the employer and are performing productive work—for example, filing, performing other clerical work or assisting customers—then the fact that they may be receiving some benefits in the form of a new skill or improved work habits is unlikely to make them trainees given the benefits received by the employer.
-Training and Employment Guidance Letter, U.S. Department of Labor