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Blair Hickman: Lessons Learned Investigating Unpaid Internships

July 24, 2014

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/intern-at-al-jazeera-cunyjschool.jpg
A journalism graduate student interns at the United Nations al-Jazeera bureau.
Image: Flickr user cunyjschool

By Blair Hickman
By arrangement with ProPublica

After a year scrutinizing the intern economy, ProPublica’s internship investigation is coming to an end. But before signing off, we wanted to do our own end-of-semester review.

What We’ve Learned

Exhaustive data on interns doesn’t exist. Though a handful of research institutes conduct annual internship surveys, the federal government doesn’t track statistics on the intern economy. One recent study found that over half of graduating college seniors had held some type of internship during school. That’s more than double the rate a similar study found two decades ago, and doesn’t even include graduates, adults switching fields or high school students.

Plus, since the Department of Labor doesn’t aggressively pursue complaints, lawsuits often provide the only public insight into the treatment of unpaid interns.

Businesses aren’t the only force behind the unpaid intern explosion. Some colleges (like Arizona State University) hire their own students for unpaid internships. And the government has conveniently created loopholes exempting its interns from federal labor standards. Though a recent study found that wealthier families do not necessarily have greater access to unpaid internships, some interns and experts, like Intern Nation author Ross Perlin, have nevertheless expressed concern that such loopholes exclude lower-income workers from internship opportunities.

Without pay, interns aren’t considered “employees” under the Civil Rights Act, and laws enforced by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission do not apply to them

“I turned down an unpaid internship at a Congressional Office,” said one University of Connecticut political science major. “This internship… did not pay for parking in their parking garage. I calculated that I would have to pay $966 in gas and parking alone for this internship—that does not include the cost of college credits.”

Most unpaid interns do not have workers’ rights. Without pay, interns aren’t considered “employees” under the Civil Rights Act, and laws enforced by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission do not apply to them. Right now, unpaid interns are protected against sexual harassment only in places that have proactively closed this legal loophole—Oregon, Washington DC, and New York City. A bill to protect unpaid interns has passed California’s State Assembly, but still needs to clear the Senate. And a bill to protect interns against workplace discrimination has also been introduced in New Jersey, though it doesn’t specifically mention sexual harassment.

Interns cited attentive mentors, expanded professional networks and the opportunity to produce real work as reasons they had positive experiences.

Meanwhile, anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million people intern for free every year. The Economic Policy Institute has recommended that Congress change the definition of an “employee… to include interns who perform work for an employer.” But labor lawyer Maurice Piankopoints out that if for-profit companies simply paid interns when they should (which is usually, according to Labor Department guidelines), this wouldn’t be an issue.

Internships improve employment prospects. In one recent survey, 60 percent of employers expressed a preference for hiring applicants with internships on their resume. And several students told us that their internships led to bona-fide jobs.

Interns can learn more on the job than in the classroom. To date, more than 500 current and former interns have shared their stories with us. And while some lamented tasks such as cleaning bathrooms, others praised their internships as more valuable than time in the classroom.

In stories we heard, interns cited attentive mentors, expanded professional networks and the opportunity to produce real work as reasons they had positive experiences.

“I was treated like a professional reporter and built an amazing reel during my experience,” said one Northwestern University journalism student “…all of these experiences, combined with the connections I made in the newsroom during my experience, were a major asset when I searched for a job.”

Universities play a critical role in the intern economy. According to one recent study, 90 percent of universities now offer academic credit for internships, and many majors require them. But oversight policies to ensure students aren’t exploited vary drastically from department to department.

“I can’t say that I gained anything notable from the experience other than insight into how cash-strapped even well-known nonprofits can be.”

For example, Ball State University’s journalism program, which requires an internship to graduate, has adopted a hands-on approach to helping students find, secure and navigate internships. Several Ball State students praised their experiences in our Price of an Internship app.

A 2010 policy studies major from Syracuse University was not so happy. “[I] can’t say that I gained anything notable from the experience other than insight into how cash-strapped even well-known nonprofits…can be,” the intern said.

Still other students questioned the value of their university’s involvement; one New York University 2012 journalism graduate student said the required course assignments weren’t necessary. “It rankled a bit that I had to pay tuition to NYU (I think well over $1,000?) for an internship class credit,” the student said. “We had internship class meetings and help composing resumes and cover letters, but on balance, they were not essential.”

In the year we’ve spent examining unpaid internships, New York University and Columbia have changed their internship policies to ensure better oversight. Other schools have told us that they are in the process of reviewing their policies.

Unpaid interns can collect back pay without ruining their career prospects. Interns can file confidential complaints about current or former employers with the Labor Department. If you’d like to pursue wages you think you deserve, check out our resource guide.

Blair Hickman is ProPublica’s community editor.

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