Few protections, profits for unpaid interns even with first hints of reform

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Gabrianna Dumaguin/Staff

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The hours burned by as Anuraag Kumar scurried around California Memorial Stadium with hot summer rays beating on his back. But instead of a football, the UC Berkeley sophomore was carrying medical supplies.

For about 30 hours every week during the summer 2013 football training camp, Kumar set up equipment and assisted physicians as a Cal Athletics intern. It’s an invaluable experience for a premedical student, he said, but there was one catch: It was unpaid.

“It’s pretty exhausting,” Kumar said. “It’s difficult to work so many hours a week unpaid and still find time for a paid opportunity.”

Combating competition and economic decline, college students are increasingly struggling to find work and take on unpaid internships. The ubiquity of the latter follows the economy’s shift in the past few decades toward more casual employment, said Katie Quan, the associate chair of UC Berkeley Labor Center.

“It’s very hard to find a paid internship that will also give you experience for med school,” Kumar said. “Not doing them puts you at a disadvantage.”

In search of legal protection

Despite their prevalence, unpaid interns are not protected in the same way as paid employees are, leaving room for potential exploitation.

California State Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, introduced a bill in January that would give unpaid interns the same protections from discrimination and sexual harassment as paid employees.

The bill, currently in committee, came in response to a New York federal judge’s ruling last fall that a Syracuse University student could not sue the company where she was an unpaid intern for sexual harassment because she did not count as an employee.

“The recession has forced young people to rely on these unpaid positions to build resumes and contacts,” Skinner said in a statement. “Employers owe them a safe and fair workplace.”

Unpaid internships dominated headlines last summer after unpaid interns sued a number of high-profile companies including NBCUniversal, Sony and Conde Nast, claiming they suffered minimum wage violations from not being assigned different jobs than paid employees and not receiving training in an educational environment — two of the requirements for unpaid workers set by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The wave of suits provoked discussion not only about the lack of legal protection for interns but, more importantly, the value of unpaid internships.

A means to an end

Many students still see unpaid internships as necessary to break into certain industries, particularly nontechnical fields such as government and media, where paid opportunities can be scarce.

Anna Shen, a UC Berkeley senior majoring in political science, started interning — unpaid — for a Berkeley City Council member last fall, bolstering her interest in working in the public sector.

“Even in freshman year, everyone was getting internships,” Shen said. “The expectation was if you don’t get an internship by junior year, you have nothing to show when you graduate, and you won’t get hired.”

Nationwide, about 48 percent of internships taken by seniors graduating in 2013 were unpaid, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

But as no system exists at the state or federal level to specifically regulate unpaid internships, some students learn practical skills at their internship while others perform less-meaningful labor.

“The purpose of unpaid internships should be to give young people a chance to sample certain kinds of work,” said Robert Reich, a UC Berkeley public policy professor and former U.S. secretary of labor. “All too often, employers view unpaid interns as free help to do menial tasks.”

Unpaid internships often infeasible for students who lack the luxury to forgo a paid opportunity to pursue an internship in their field of interest.

“An unpaid internship can take away from time (students) need for studying, working and paying their expenses here at Cal,” said Julian Ledesma, interim director of the campus Educational Opportunity Program, citing the myriad challenges low-income and first-generation college students face.

Still, Ledesma said while internships are important, students often gain professional skills through other activities such as research.

A 2013 NACE survey found that 37 percent of college seniors with unpaid internship experience received at least one job offer — only 1 percent higher than those with no experience. Students with no experience also had a higher median starting salary than those who took unpaid internships.

In contrast, the study found that the percent of surveyed students who had taken paid internships and received at least one job offer was about 63 percent and their median starting salary was significantly higher, although the research did not take into account factors such as the types of jobs to which students applied.

A campus approach

To legitimize unpaid internships, many companies require students to receive academic credit for participating.

At UC Berkeley, there is no campuswide oversight of academic internships, although many departments follow Career Center guidelines.  The center also recently said that it will approve a new option to receive internship credit through a online summer course via ISF 187.

Typically, students can receive credit from their department if the internship directly relates to their major and they complete a project pertaining to it.

“(Internships) allow students to explore a particular career option,” said Tyler Stovall, the dean of the undergraduate division at UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science.

For international students, the internship process is even tougher. To work legally, they must be authorized by special federal work permission — but only if their degree requires an internship, or if they’re taking a course or a project based on an internship.

From last summer to this spring, UC Berkeley’s English and media studies departments each gave 24 undergraduate students academic credit for internships. Political science gave seven. In that period, 408 international students were authorized to take internships. The campus does not keep track of whether internships are paid or unpaid.

In contrast, the majority of internships in electrical engineering and computer science are paid, said Christopher Hunn, an academic counselor for computer science.

Investing in the future

Still working his unpaid internship on the field between classes, Kumar also has a paid job as a part-time tutor. It’s a balancing act, he says, to juggle an internship, a job and a full course load.

But Kumar sees his internship as an investment towards his future.

“I’d love to get a paid internship, but to gain that I need the right experience,” Kumar said. “I’m lucky my parents are willing to help out (financially) — a lot of people aren’t that fortunate.”

Jessie Lau covers campus life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @jessielau93.

Clarification(s):
A previous version of this article may have implied that ISF 87 was a new course. In fact, the Career Center introduced a new summer internship credit option through an online course, ISF 187.

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  • Red_Geologist

    Legal Slavery for the ambitious slaves. Isn’t Crapitalism Wonderful?

  • Mel Content

    Welcome to the Obama economy, kiddies. When the supply of college grads exceeds the economic demand, guess what happens?

    • cal_guy

      how is this Obama’s fault in any way? Lack of demand for college grads has been a problem since companies shipped off jobs both unskilled and skilled overseas. Maybe the way to fix the problem is creating more domestic jobs (oh no, not stimulus!) Obama is not great in his own right, but none of his policies have been that helpful to students anyways.

      • Mel Content

        how is this Obama’s fault in any way?

        You plan on joining the real world any time soon?

        • GreatOaks

          This is a problem reflective of the recession (whose wheels were turning long before Obama took office). You can blame him for a lot of things. But not for this. This is just business owners taking advantage of a slow economy, plain and simple.

          U.S. GDP took a huge dip (-2.4%) in the 2nd Quarter of 2008 – which was before Obama even won his first election (Nov 2008). And, if you know a bit of economics, you’ll know that a dip in GDP is put into motion well before the quarter in which it actually registers.

          Your “real world” is sadly devoid of facts.