In the past few years, more and more questions have come up about whether it’s legal for companies to hire unpaid “interns.” While unpaid internships have been prominent especially in recent years, several lawsuits have been filed in recent years. While an internship has become common practice for students wanting to get a shoe-in and some extra resume beef, the argument stands that some unpaid internships are breaking federal labor laws and state minimum wage laws.
So, what’s the answer? The law is actually pretty clear when it comes to internships. Laws that have been around since the 1940s dictate that in order to have unpaid workers, employers must meet six criteria:
- The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
- The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
Now let’s take a look at some of the recent cases and see how they measure up. On October 29th, a federal judge in New York ruled in favor of Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, who filed suit against Fox Searchlight Pictures after working as production interns for the film Black Swan. The two spent their time on set doing things like ordering lunch, answering phones, and taking out the garbage. Not only do those tasks not provide educational benefit for the intern, but they also provide an immediate advantage to the employer—which they would have otherwise had to pay someone to do.
Another recent suit is that of an intern for The New Yorker, who worked three days per week for entire summers—getting paid just $300 to $500 each summer. While he did gain valuable work experience proofreading, reviewing submissions, responding to emails and the like, again this provided immediate benefit to the magazine. According to federal labor laws, that means that he was entitled to at least minimum wage. The case is still pending.
The best situation would be one in which employers did one of two things: 1) created actual unpaid internship programs that are of educational benefit and abide by the law; or 2) paid interns for their menial work—isn’t it at least worth minimum wage and a shoe-in? Many of the companies facing issues here are ones that are large enough to have some disposable income to pay interns minimum wage, if not more.
If employers shift in one of those two ways, it will be of greater benefit to students; however, stricter enforcement of these laws may also lead to fewer internships being offered in the future—and that would truly be unfortunate.