Earlier this month, news broke that a former fashion magazine intern was suing the publication she had worked for and its parent company for violating labor laws after she claims she worked a full-time schedule without receiving compensation. Xeudan “Diana” Wang, a 2010 graduate of Ohio State University, alleges she worked up to 55 hours a week during her four-month stint as an unpaid fashion intern at the famed magazine in 2011.
While Wang is part of a small handful of unpaid interns who have sought legal action to contest the fairness of such internships — a group that includes two past interns at a prominent movie production company who filed a similar suit in September 2011 — the debate her suit raises is common.
On one hand …
In order to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act, internships need only provide college students with a valuable learning experience, equivalent to that which would be gained in a classroom setting. No pay is required.
Many universities and companies also allow unpaid interns to receive school credit in exchange for their work, providing some financial incentive for students who might otherwise pay thousands of dollars to fulfill such credits on campus. This credit-for-work exchange, however, is not required by law.
Because many internships do provide students with the valuable learning experiences they’re designed to, supporters argue that they’re a perfectly acceptable — and legal — practice.
“Most people will have one or more unpaid internship in their career; I had several in college. Sometimes, the fact is that you need experience to get experience. Internships are the new entry-level job,” says Heather Huhman, founder of Come Recommended, a public-relations firm that focuses on the recruiting industry, and author of the book “Lies, Damned Lies & Internships: The Truth About Getting From Classroom to Cubicle.” “While there are many paid internships out there, they often require some level of experience, which you can gain from an unpaid internship.”
In many industries — including publishing and film production — unpaid internships are practically a rite of passage, one that most students in these fields are familiar with and accepting of. “Unpaid internships are common in media, communications, writing and other creative fields,” Huhman says. “This is because people in these fields rely on their experiences, achievements and portfolios far more than a field like engineering or business, where a degree can be enough to get you started.”
The competitive nature of these fields also means that students are often more than willing to work for free in order to get a leg up.
But on the other …
Companies in competitive industries are well aware that students will line up to work for them without pay, and – as Wang’s lawsuit accuses her former employers of doing — some experts think companies start to take advantage of these young, eager workers.
Besides requiring employers to provide students with valuable learning experience, the Fair Labor Standards Act has a number of other guidelines for unpaid internships, including that “the training is for the benefit of the trainees,” and “the trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation.”
Critics of unpaid internships — as well as Wang’s lawyers — allege that employers are using unpaid interns for their own benefit and in place of regular employees.
According to a press release issued by Wang’s law firm, Outten & Golden LLP, the same firm that represents the plaintiffs in the case involving the film producer, “Unpaid interns are becoming the modern-day equivalent of entry-level employees, except that employers are not paying them for the many hours they work. The practice of classifying employees as ‘interns’ to avoid paying wages runs afoul of federal and state wage and hour laws … By failing to treat interns as employees, [the company] has denied them important rights that the wage and hour laws protect, including the right to unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation insurance, Social Security contributions, and, crucially, the right to earn a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.”
Wang’s case is just the latest chapter in the ongoing debate over unpaid internships. In April 2010, for example, Nancy J. Leppink, deputy wage and hour administrator at the Labor Department, announced plans to crack down on unpaid internships, telling The New York Times, “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.”
The fine bottom line
A certain amount of thankless work and menial labor goes along with accepting an internship. Such is the nature of the beast. But it should still be a learning experience for the student. So how do you draw the line between everyday grunt work and exploitation?
Huhman offers the following conclusion: “Pay doesn’t always correlate with the experience you will receive; focus on the learning experience you’re getting from an internship to determine what the real cost/benefit balance is. If you’re working hard, but learning a lot, making great connections and adding achievements to your résumé, I would argue that you’re getting a great experience. On the other hand, if you’re working hard for your employer and learning nothing but how to enter data into a spreadsheet or work an expensive coffee maker, you’re being taken advantage of. Think about what you’re taking away from the internship (besides money).”
What do you think? Are unpaid internships fair?