– By Amy Spekhardt The unpaid internship program in America is a plague on young workers. Unpaid internships are replacing what were once entry level positions and leaving young workers without any legal protection or job security. Recent court cases h …

Walton Pantland

unpaid-interns

– By Amy Spekhardt

The unpaid internship program in America is a plague on young workers. Unpaid internships are replacing what were once entry level positions and leaving young workers without any legal protection or job security. Recent court cases have both created headway for intern rights and have illustrated an employer’s endless ability to exploit their interns. Young Americans are so engulfed with finding any job and their added lack of organization has effectively permitted employers to receive free and illegal labor. The present situation enables employers to demand the same amount and quality of work from interns as salaried employees since interns are too afraid to take a stand in fear of being fired. With a desperate generation trying to secure any employment and government policies going unregulated, American youths are being exploited for an increased profit margin.

Unpaid interns are subject to the whims of their employers, have short term “employment contracts,” are not paid and are not legally protected by some state employment laws. Unpaid internships have almost become a requirement for young Americans to gain any type of employment. This situation is contrary to 30 years ago when young workers were less educated and received appropriate compensation, benefits and job security for their work. Whilst the Department of Labor celebrated the 75th Anniversary of the United State Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) of 1938, young Americans are still not afforded protection under it.

Many for profit companies have recently been able to escape the requirements of FLSA by labeling positions as internships. The FLSA’s test to aid employers in determining whether they have to compensate an intern includes the elements of:

1. The internship must be similar to training given in an education environment

2. The internship experience is of the benefit of the intern

3. The intern works under close supervision of existing staff

4. The employer providing the training gets no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities; sometimes the employer may be inconvenienced

5. The intern is not necessarily guaranteed a job at the end of the internship

6. It is agreed upon by the intern and the employer that the intern will not receive pay

If all six are met, the act does not require employers to pay their interns or compensate them for overtime. This criteria seems to be very difficult to achieve since most unpaid internships are not educational and are the type of entry level jobs that were paid in the past. Nancy J. Leppink, the former head of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, stated that “If you’re a for-profit employer there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be within the law.” Nevertheless employers are getting around this hurdle effortlessly.

Most shockingly is that the state and federal governments along with non-profit organizations do not have to adhere to the provisions of the FLSA. Currently, between Congress and the White House there is one office in the House of Representatives which pays their interns. There have been some legislative initiatives taken by Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D – OR) who introduced House Resolution 2659 in July 2013. This bill looks to fund stipends for individuals who otherwise would not able to afford an internship with the government or a nonprofit. However there has been little progress made on the bill’s progression through Congress. If the government does not have to adhere to its own laws, the expectation that the private sector will is unrealistic and has proven to be.

The most unfortunate repercussions of the unpaid internship phenomena are the socioeconomic realities. The majority of the young Americans accepting unpaid internships are from affluent families who can financially support themselves without an income. Unpaid internships are continuing the reality of the timeless phrase “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer” to be correct in American society.

A clear example of the socioeconomic reality of unpaid internships is seen in this summer’s White House interns. They included children of the Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Vice-President Joe Biden’s former Chief-of-Staff, the owners of the Washington Nationals baseball team, VIPs from top Washington law firms Winston & Strawn and Holland & Knights and of course from powerful Democratic party donors. Additionally 30% of the interns attend one of the seven expensive Ivy League universities, which is also the same percentage of interns attending state funded universities. While nepotism and personal connections are clearly needed to achieve some unpaid internships, many young American workers who are struggling financially must pass up these opportunities and retard their careers.

Whilst there are clear and harsh socioeconomic realities caused by unpaid internships, unpaid internships are also causing a tremendous disadvantage to young women. As reported by Madeleine Schwartz in Dissent, three-quarters of unpaid interns are female. This is greatly due to the exploitation of unpaid internships in the fashion and entertainment industries. Schwartz’s Dissent analogizes the large female base of unpaid interns to “happy housewives.” The analogy compares unpaid interns to the “well-taken-care-of” housewife who is the secondary citizen that is and should be grateful for any job opportunity. Unpaid interns are also forced to exhibit feminine characteristic of being flexible, enthusiastic, obedient and submissive as their earlier housewife counterpart. This compulsory employment for women has actually placed females in dangerous work environments without a paying job in reach or in sight.

On October 3rd, a New York district judge ruled that unpaid interns do not qualify as employees and are thus unable to file a sexual harassment action against their employers. This ruling arose when Lihuan Wang, a then 22 year old female intern at a broadcasting company, was lured into a hotel room by her employer on the presumption of discussing her career. However her employer commented on Wang’s appearance, inappropriately attempted to kiss her and touched her buttocks. The judge’s reasoning places thousands of young women at risks for sexual harassment in the workplace. Currently unpaid interns are only protected in Oregon from sexual harassment in the work place. The exploitation of female workers is now far beyond labor profiteering and is now ruthlessly expanding the subordinate positions of unpaid female interns by permitting unwanted sexual advances.

Unpaid interns are now taken action against their exploitation and forcing companies and industries to end their abuse on eager young Americans. This summer unpaid interns won a huge victory to ensure fair treatment. A judge ruled that two unpaid interns Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman should have been paid for their work on the production of “Black Swan,” a Fox Searchlight production. “Black Swan” grossed over $300 million but these men were not compensated for completing tasks similar to paid employees because their positions were internships. The judge reaffirmed the six part test set forth in the FLSA and stated that “unpaid internships should be allowed only in very limited circumstances.” This judgment has now put many for-profit companies on notice that the exploitation of America’s young workers is over.

The struggle of young Americans is now at the forefront of the political debate, where substantial headway is being made and travesties are being reinforced. Unpaid interns and young Americans need to organize and demand compensation for quality work product. Every worker’s time, energy and effort is valuable and this new social notion of unpaid internships as a step further up the corporate ladder has to be quashed. Unpaid internships may give young workers some exposure and experience in the workplace but so does a paid position.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

Read All Articles