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Fall is upon us again, and with it comes changing leaf colors, cooling temperatures and, of course, internship application deadlines.
While perusing the options of potential internships, it’s impossible to ignore the increasing amount of unpaid positions available for the taking. Many students are required to participate in an internship before graduating, so the appeal of snagging any internship — paid or not — is tempting; not to mention that companies are good at making their positions sound worthwhile despite the lack of paycheck.
Obviously, accepting an unpaid position is something to consider financially. There are some questions you should ask yourself before applying for the gig. For example, will you have enough money saved up to buy a bottle of wine and a box of cookies after a particularly stressful day on the job?
Likewise, is the internship even legal?
While I don’t have the answer to the former question, the answer to the latter is likely no.
The Fair Labor Standards Act under the U.S. Department of Labor created a test to determine when it is fair to not compensate an intern. The test has six criteria that must be met in order to render an intern without pay.
- The internship must be similar to training given in an education environment.
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
- The intern works under close supervision of existing staff, not taking the place of a regular worker.
- The employer providing the training gets no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities; sometimes the employer might even be inconvenienced.
- The intern is not necessarily guaranteed a job at the end of the internship.
- It is agreed upon by the intern and the employer that the intern will not receive pay.
If all six are met, then the internship does not exist under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Act’s standards of having to pay interns at least minimum wage and overtime compensation do not apply to the position.
That’s kind of difficult criteria to meet, though. I don’t know too many companies that would seek additional help from an intern if no immediate advantages from the intern’s activities were benefitting the employer. While an internship may be necessary to graduate, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that paying for an extra course for school credit to do free labor is much of a benefit on the intern’s behalf.
That’s not to say that internships are not enriching experiences if unpaid. I would hope that interns are learning, growing and becoming more experienced in whatever field they are studying. However, with companies eager for cheap — or free — laborers and students eager to load up their resumes, it seems as though there’s a black market of internships out there that are hiring bright-eyed students to do the work of otherwise paid employees for nothing more than a letter of recommendation and, if you’re lucky, a free donut from time to time.
Just because an employer is prestigious or the opportunity sounds too great to pass up — such as the White House Internship Program, which is unpaid — does not make it an acceptable unpaid position. If you are able to afford wage-less work, that is wonderful, but those who are not in a financial position to support themselves with no income end up losing out on opportunities, setting them even further behind in the race to land a good career in the future.
Essentially, unpaid internships are proponents of that whole “the rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer” factor with companies getting work done for free, well-off students getting experience and those who are financially struggling having to pass up internship opportunities.
While I could wag my finger at employers taking advantage of job-hungry college kids, I will instead do something that might actually make a difference and warn students to think twice before jumping aboard the unpaid internship wagon.
Contact CU Independent Opinions Editor Lizzy Hernandez at Elizabeth.email@example.com or @literally_lizzy.