Internships− don’t give away your labor

Many companies in the Oakland-Macomb area take on interns and help them hone their skills while paying them a modest stipend for their efforts.

Internships can be a great way to get references, hands-on training and that coveted experience we all need for our resumes. They can also be a horrendous rip-off, in which unscrupulous employers treat interns like free temporary employees.

According to the Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act, an unpaid internship must meet a list of six criteria – and it must meet all six of those criteria, not just a few (see the links at the end of this article).

Among the list, the employer cannot benefit from the work of an unpaid intern. An unpaid intern also cannot “displace regular employees” by doing work that should be done by regular salaried staff. If any of those happen, the intern must be paid minimum wage at the very least.

But a Business Insider article shows that more than half of all internships are unpaid. In many of those cases, the employer is committing federal crime.

But what of the experience gained? 

An article from The Atlantic shoots down the idea that all internships – even unpaid ones – benefit the student in the form of job offers and experience. Those who worked paid internships had a 60 percent chance of receiving a job offer upon graduation. Those with unpaid internships had a 37 percent chance, as opposed to a 35.2 percent chance from those with no internships at all.

In other words, there’s only a 1.8 percent benefit for unpaid interns.

With no monetary compensation, an incremental increase in job offer potential, and possibly long tedious hours, why do so many students jump on the internship bandwagon?

More colleges are requiring internships than ever before. Last year, 36.9 percent of college students worked at least one internship, according to US News. That, combined with employers requiring experience beyond a college classroom, has caused a spike in students willing to give away their labor.

This trend also hurts current employees, and can lead to companies taking on fewer full-time employees, according to Ross Perlin, the author of “Intern Nation.” After all, why would a company hire new employees when a fresh batch of interns pops up a few times a year?

This situation is not untenable. A USA Today article shows how students at NYU banded together to remove illegal unpaid internships from the school’s campus career center listings.

Another article from the Atlantic tells of a court ruling in which Judge William H. Pauly III declared Fox Searchlight had broken the law by not compensating two interns who worked on the movie “Black Swan.”

These are just the opening salvos of a battle against depreciated labor and illegal hiring practices. The fight can’t stop there. Students must continue.

When you see a listing for an unpaid internship when you know it’s from a for-profit company looking to benefit from unpaid labor, send that company a link to the Department of Justice’s Fair Labor Standards Act.

For those of you who believe you’ve been unfairly compensated in the past, it might not be too late. Contact a lawyer if you can. Gather evidence of work you did that directly benefited your employer.

Last, but not least, don’t give away your labor. Every time this happens it weakens the value of your work and those who come after you.

Make sure companies get the message: If you can’t afford to pay us, we can’t afford to work for you.