Along with pursuing a degree, volunteering and participating in other extracurriculars, a new staple has emerged in recent years for the already overwhelmed college student — the unpaid internship.
The emergence of this new entry-level position is coupled with the growth of state and federal laws to regulate it. The U.S. Department of Labor requires that employers meet a six-factor criteria in hiring unpaid interns, and violations of this policy have led to many high-profile class action lawsuits in recent years. The main thrust behind the regulations is protecting interns from performing the same work as employees without one key piece: payment.
In such a competitive environment, many students turn to unpaid internships as a gateway to a better resumes and job opportunities. Hoping to stand out, students are often willing to forego a salary for the promise of relevant experience that could be beneficial in their search for a post-graduation job or in lieu of career options. A 2014 report conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed that 61 percent of graduating seniors had some form of internship or co-op experience.
A separate survey conducted by Millennial Branding and Experience, Inc. found that 91 percent of employers think that students should complete one or two internships before they graduate. An Atlantic article put the figure of unpaid interns hired by employers at 500,000 to 1 million per year.
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, an employer cannot receive “immediate advantage” from the intern’s work and should not benefit from his or her free labor. Unpaid interns are not there to displace actual employees but rather to work closely with current staff. An unpaid internship should be similar to training given in an educational environment, and the internship should be for the intern’s benefit.
Saumya Sharma, a UC Berkeley senior, interned at a law firm in Berkeley for five months as an unpaid intern. Her tasks included scanning and filing legal documents, requesting police reports and taking notes at depositions, as well as answering and making phone calls.
“I do feel like I’m learning a lot,” Sharma said. “I’ve learned about cases pertaining to civil litigation and those that appear in small claims courts. I get to analyze client files, which give me a better understanding of how each case can be potentially solved.”
In recent years, allegations of improper internships came to public attention. In September 2011, a class action complaint was filed by two former Fox Searchlight Pictures interns. The complaint alleges that Fox Searchlight “violated federal and state labor laws by failing to pay minimum wages and overtime to Glatt and Footman, who performed the work of production assistants and bookkeepers on the Fox Searchlight film Black Swan.” The plaintiffs asked the district court to rule that they were “employees” entitled to minimum wages and overtime under federal and New York wage laws. In June 2013, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion. In the first ruling of its kind, the district court concluded that the two former Fox Searchlight interns were employees protected by federal and state wage and hour law.
In 2013, class action complaints were filed against Conde Nast and NBCUniversal on behalf of unpaid interns. The Conde Nast class action litigation alleges that Conde Nast “violated federal state and labor laws by failing to pay minimum wages to interns who performed productive work for its magazine.” The parties later entered into a settlement agreement, although a final conclusion has not been reached. The NBCUniversal complaint alleges that the workers are owed the applicable minimum wage rate for all hours worked and spread of hours pay for days when they worked more than 10 hours.
An internship, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act, should strive to be structured around a classroom or academic experience. Many universities run internship programs, providing college credit and other incentives to compensate for unpaid internships: Sharma was offered unit credit for her internship but decided to forego the extra credits.
Avni Patel, a senior studying economics, works 15 to 20 hours a week at a tech company in San Francisco for a paid internship. Daily tasks included rebranding and redesigning the company’s website, coordinating conferences, searching the market and managing social media accounts. Patel said her experience working at the tech company for more than a year has “definitely helped prepare (her) for future jobs.”
Both Sharma and Patel said their internships helped them gain more real-world experiences they would have otherwise not received in a traditional classroom.
Contact Soyolmaa at [email protected].