By: Kate Morgan, Events and Outreach Coordinator
Internships. Roughly 75% of the student population within the United States have had experience with one, however, over half of these internships are either unpaid or not compensated. At any one time, an estimated 500,000 to 1 million interns are working for free or minimal pay. What does this mean for students? Most of the time, students – graduate and undergraduate combined, are required to complete an internship in order to graduate. Depending on the hours that a student has to complete (which can range from 75 to 200 hour requirements, contingent upon the program or major), this means that students have to complete this internship over a summer break, winter break, during the academic year, or have to take time off of school to complete this obligation. This puts less privileged students at a disadvantage. Minorities are less likely to get the most valuable unpaid internships because they often cannot afford to take them, especially if they are living far away from their hometown, Ross Eisenbrey states, who is the vice-president of the Economic Policy Institute.
Unpaid internships are legal in the U.S. as long as the positions meet the US Department of Labor requirements – unpaid internships “must benefit” the interns by providing them with new skills and experiences. However, some students are having to complete over six internships and are still considered “unemployable” at the time of graduation. Companies know that students need internships to graduate and, ideally, be employable in their career field. Therefore, companies can thus capitalize off of intern-seeking students to get work done for free, or “class credit” at some universities. Even then, students usually have to pay for the class credit via. tuition billing – this can be harmful since internships are disproportionately completed during the summer, and summer tuition rates are much higher than academic year tuition rates. This creates a monetary deficit for students that put them further in debt and creates a desperate need for an immediate job after graduation. Students are already a vulnerable population, and in any other capacity if someone was working for free, it would be considered labor exploitation.
Know Your Rights – 3 ways you can reduce labor exploitation as an Intern
1. Having clear expectations on your roles as an intern
This can take many forms. However, usually a document should be signed before or right at the beginning of the internship stating the roles, requirements, and responsibilities for the duration of the internship. Not reading these documents thoroughly or having “small text” is a way that companies can entrap students to work over 40 hour weeks, or have responsibilities outside of the agreed upon roles.
2. Make sure you are well versed on the US Department of Labor Fair Standards Act for Interns
What are your labor rights as an intern? The US Department of Labor has a handy website to tell you.
3. Be clear about compensation – or lack thereof
Is the ideal internship you have been eyeing in New York City? Do they provide you with housing? Do they provide you with a metrocard allowance? Even if they don’t give you a monetary stipend, does this company offer other incentives and benefits that would make your transition and time in New York City easier? Or does this internship not offer any benefits? Knowing this information before applying or accepting an internship can be a great way to curb exploitation.
Other Information Regarding Labor, Internships, and Alternatives to Student Internship Programs
The Impact Unpaid Internships Have on the Labor Market by Nicolas Pologeorgis
Just Saying No: US Interns Challenge employers over Exploitation by Jana Kasperkevic
When Does Internship Become Labor Exploitation? By Eric Justian