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Is your unpaid internship illegal?

An article in The New York Times earlier this month about unpaid internships possibly being illegal has sparked much conversation on college campuses across the country. Ohio State is no exception.

The article quoted Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, who said, “If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with 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 in compliance with the law.”

Ronda Baldwin, internship coordinator for the School of Communications at OSU, agrees.

“There is no doubt that there is an increase in the number of organizations who are offering unpaid internships and violating federal law,” Baldwin said in an e-mail. “However, proving the violation can be cumbersome, costly and time-consuming.”

The federal law Leppink and Baldwin are referring to is the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The act includes six criteria that unpaid internships must meet to be considered legal, including making sure the intern does not displace regular employees and that the employer gains no immediate advantage from the intern’s work.

However, enforcing these criteria has been a challenge. Many violations go unreported by interns for fear that filing a complaint could damage future employment opportunities.

April Calkovsky, internship coordinator for Arts and Sciences Career Services, said she and her office are doing the best they can to educate students and employers about unpaid internships.

“We are working with employers and students in a way that creates the most equitable situation for each, given the present law,” Calkovsky said in an e-mail. “Students should be aware of their rights, and should feel comfortable coming to a career advisor with questions or concerns.”

However, some students might not care if their internship is legal.

“Students, by and large, typically don’t have a concern about [unpaid internships],” said Margie Bogenschutz, senior director of undergraduate career management at the Fisher College of Business. “They want to do this. They want to get it on their resume.”

Bogenschutz said this is especially true for first- and second-year Fisher students who want to gain experience to compete for the more advanced, paid internships that are typically only offered to third- and fourth-years.

Also, students that want a career in more competitive fields, such as sports marketing, television and the arts, have a mentality that “you have to pay your dues,” so taking an unpaid internship seems completely acceptable and expected, Bogenschutz said.

One OSU student, who asked to remain anonymous, thought her internship last summer with a photography studio was going to be “a dream come true.” However, she was rarely allowed to use the photography equipment, and she instead spent her days sending MySpace messages to her boss’ friends advertising his new music project. One day, she even spent hours burning 200 CDs of his music.

She acknowledged that her unpaid internship was probably illegal, but said she thought it was best for her career that she stay.

“I was definitely not an intern, but a free employee,” she said. “Worse even still, a free employee who needed a positive recommendation. So I stayed.”

One way companies try to compensate for not paying their interns is to offer students college credit in exchange for the internship, something Bogenschutz said she doesn’t agree with. College credits are through the student’s university, not through the company, so typically students must pay for each credit hour they take. This means a student who gets college credit for an unpaid internship is technically paying money to work for free.

The U.S. Department of Labor website has a special section devoted to internships under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which states that “internships in the for-profit private sector will most often be viewed as employment,” meaning those internships should be paid. This is typically not the case, though.

Career services at OSU are decentralized by school, meaning there is no data on unpaid internships regarding the general student body.

However, for the School of Communications, the number of paid internships that students completed for internship credit with Communications 683 in Autumn Quarter 2008 compared with Autumn Quarter 2009 decreased from 35.5 percent to 23.8 percent.
This means that almost 75 percent of the students that completed internships last autumn through 683 were unpaid.

Experts argue that one reason unpaid internships are hard to prove illegal is that the six criteria of the Fair Labor Standards Act are outdated and hard to apply to today’s internships.

The act has been amended many times since 1938 to adjust for changes in minimum wage, medical/sick leave and other circumstances. However, the last time the criteria regarding unpaid internships were updated was in 1947, when unpaid internships were apprenticeships at blue-collar manufacturing plants.

Unpaid internships can be problematic, but both Baldwin and Bogenschutz say that if done correctly, unpaid internships could be very beneficial to students in gaining job experience and networking.

“While it would be ideal for students to receive monetary compensation for their time spent at the internship, that is not always an option for the organization,” Baldwin said in an e-mail. “There are many unpaid internships that provide students with excellent learning opportunities, and students should not dismiss those internships based solely on the criteria of being ‘unpaid.'”

Bogenschutz said students should exercise caution in picking an unpaid internship and make sure their employers are on the same page regarding what will be expected of them during the internship.

She put together a list of guidelines for employers wishing to post unpaid internships through the Fisher career office. The guidelines recommend that interns be paid at least minimum wage for their work but suggests alternatives to the company if this isn’t possible, such as having the student interns sign an agreement that lists their tasks and ensures they will gain valuable experience from this internship.

The six criteria regarding unpaid internships applies only to for-profit companies, and not to internships with non-for-profit organizations or through government agencies.

For more information on the Fair Labor Standards Act, visit the Department of Labor website at dol.gov.

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