Legality of Unpaid Internships

Published: April 22, 2010

At Fordham College at Lincoln Center, we’re a busy bunch. From classes to extracurricular activities, many of us also manage to squeeze in multiple internships during our undergraduate years. However, according to Brianna Steinhilber’s article, “Unpaid Internships Potentially Illegal,” on page one, we may be participating in an illegal activity.

Federal regulations are set in place to restrict the types of duties routinely handed to unpaid interns. Basically, interns should not be doing the work of a person the company would normally pay to complete those tasks. The companies that hire unpaid interns are also not allowed to directly benefit from the work completed by interns. The environment is meant to be one of education and training. As interns, we should be doing more than grabbing coffee from Starbucks for the office’s after-lunch pick-me-up; we should be learning skills that will aid us when we are applying for real, paid jobs.

Regardless of if you are interning for credit or cash, be aware of what your internship requires of you as well as what it promises you. Internships can be incredible, career-launching pads, or they can be disappointing and exhausting. If you find that only your ability to order lunch for the entire office is utilized, speak up. Ask to learn about what your colleagues (yes, even as an intern, the higher-ups are your colleagues) are doing. The worst that could happen is they say they’re too busy to discuss it, but they will probably welcome the chance to talk about whatever project they may be working on; they get a little break and you get the chance to learn a new skill.

Also realize that not every internship is going to live up to your expectations. Most things lose their glitter once you peak behind the curtain of production.

The fact is, whether or not it’s illegal for you to be the coffee-fetcher, you’re likely to find yourself in that position from time to time. But that doesn’t mean your internship has to be nothing but tedium; if you are an unpaid intern and you don’t feel that you are learning enough from the experience, you have a right to ask for more from your employer. Internships are what you make of them. If you’re not handed assignments you feel capable of doing, speak up. Open a dialogue between you and your supervisor. Make your intentions and expectations clear, while learning the company’s as well.