As an unpaid intern, the fact that you’re not being paid could have implications far beyond the current balance in your checking account…including whether you are protected from workplace sexual harassment while at your internship.
What can you do?
1. Know the facts.
2. Know the law.
3. Protect yourself.
From Clinton to Letterman, Kennedy to Condit, the story of the powerful boss and the young intern is one we’ve heard time and again.
Unfortunately, it appears that interns are uniquely susceptible to being targeted as sexual prey. Although much sexual harassment goes unreported, and an inadequate amount of research has been devoted to the topic, at least one study found that as many as 49 percent of interns have experienced sexual harassment at their internship. This is particularly disconcerting given the recent explosion in internships, and the fact that approximately 77 percent of unpaid internships are filled by women.
The reason for this heightened susceptibility of interns is, I believe, one of power-dynamics. Interns are generally young, at the bottom of the workplace hierarchy, and in a position that is often ambiguously defined at best (interns are expected to do almost anything asked of them, no matter how outrageous seeming). And most importantly, interns feel dependent on their employer for the recommendation and experience they are told they need in order to secure a job.
Employers hold all the cards in an internship situation. Interns, none.
What is particularly dangerous about the situation interns find themselves in is that, despite their heightened vulnerability, they are often excluded from the laws that protect most employees from workplace sexual harassment.
Consider the following facts from an actual case:
An unpaid intern’s supervisor “grabbed her breasts and buttocks on numerous occasions, frequently rubbed his groin against her in the darkroom, consistently propositioned her for sex, posted numerous raunchy nude photographs in her work area, and refused to complete her evaluations unless she acquiesced to his sexual advances.”
As the law firm who successfully defended the employer in the above case proudly related, they were able to “[win] a victory in a potentially explosive sexual harassment suit by successfully arguing that a student intern was not an “employee” entitled to the protections afforded by Title VII,” because the woman, as an intern, was not paid by the company.
This case is not an anomaly, but one of numerous unfortunate cases that highlight the double indignity of unpaid internships, where no pay often equals no protection.
In their critique of the current protections afforded to unpaid interns, Not-So-Equal Protection—Reforming the Regulation of Student Internships, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) explain that“[a]lthough the legal definition of who is an “employee” protected by Title VII is not specifically outlined in the original legislation, federal courts have consistently found that the question of whether an individual is compensated for his or her work by an employer is the first test for determining employee status. Accordingly, unpaid interns, or even interns paid by an entity other than an employer, do not receive workplace discrimination protection.”
Being aware of these potential traps and pitfalls when it comes to interning is the first step in protecting yourself from becoming a victim.
However, if you do find yourself in a situation where you have been sexually harassed, there might be a backdoor for legal recourse, despite this bleak overall picture of the federal legal landscape. Ross Eisenbrey, Vice President of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), suggests a way for sexually harassed unpaid interns to put themselves within the protection of these federal laws. As Eisenbrey points out, since it is that the fact that an intern is not paid that takes an intern outside the protections of the law, if an intern was illegally unpaid, and should have been paid under federal or state wage laws, a court could find that sexual harassment laws apply.
Given the fact that many unpaid internships fail to meet the federal or state requirements for a legally unpaid internship, this could prove a powerful means for closing this glaring loophole, until Congress broadens workplace protections to include sexually harassed interns. Until that happens, this is just another on a long list of systemic injustices facing unpaid interns.]]>
“The employment of women and minors in trade and industry in the state at wages unreasonably low and not fairly commensurate with the value of the services rendered is a matter of grave and vital public concern. Many women and minors employed for gain in the state are not as a class upon a level of equality in bargaining with their employers in regard to minimum fair wage standards, and “freedom of contract” as applied to their relations with their employers is illusory. Since a very large percentage of such workers are obliged from their week-to-week wages to support themselves and others who are dependent upon them in whole or in part, they are, by reason of their necessitous circumstances, forced to accept whatever wages are offered them. Judged by any reasonable standard, wages are in many cases fixed by chance and caprice and the wages accepted are often found to bear no relation to the fair value of the service rendered. Women and minors employed for gain are peculiarly subject to the over-reaching of inefficient, harsh or ignorant employers and under unregulated competition where no adequate machinery exists for the effective regulation and maintenance of minimum fair wage standards, the standards such as exist tend to be set by the least conscionable employers. In the absence of any effective minimum fair wage rates for women and minors, the constant lowering of wages by unscrupulous employers constitutes a serious form of unfair competition against other employers, reduces the purchasing power of the workers and threatens the stability of industry. The evils of oppressive, unreasonable and unfair wages as they affect women and minors employed in the state are such as to render imperative the exercise of the police power of the state for the protection of industry and of the women and minors employed therein and of the public interest of the community at large in their health and well-being and in the prevention of the deterioration of the race.” Section 550 (Labor Law).
In today’s economy, many employers have come to view unpaid internships as a pool of free labor, enabling many businesses to increase profits. It is estimated that in 2010, there were over 500,000 unpaid internships in the U.S., at a savings to businesses of over $2 billion annually.
As individuals who accept unpaid positions universally do so with a desire of securing a future paid position (there or elsewhere), these internships are accordingly described by employers as providing valuable a uniquely valuable experience important in helping to secure a fulfilling and profitable career.
While some of these unpaid internships do prove to be the educational experience and career stepping stone they claim to be, all too many of them are not.
The self-described motivations of employers with unpaid interns are less important than the results of unpaid internship. The reality is that most unpaid internships, which make up nearly half of internships, are failing to deliver on many of the carrots that employers often dangle (implicitly or not) in order to induce interns to agree to work for free. Recent studies indicate that unpaid internships are surprisingly ineffective, on the whole at advancing one’s career. Compared to paid interns, these studies indicate that unpaid interns are given more menial tasks and spend more time waiting around for work than paid interns. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) recent 2011 Student Survey found students with unpaid internships did no better in terms of job offer rates that those who entered the job market without any internship (and even showed a 10% decrease in starting salary rates when comparing for those with unpaid internship experience to those without any internship experience). The NACE survey concluded that unpaid internship offers no advantage to the job-seeking student.
If a company implies that an unpaid intern will gain valuable educational experience but ends up performing hours of menial tasks, such as making coffee, cleaning, filing, etc., they have violated the Storekeeper Rule.
If a company implies that when the unpaid intern gains the additional experience they would consider hiring them, when in fact they do not have the intention of ever hiring them (whether because they cannot afford another employee or because they plan on replacing them with another unpaid intern), they have violated the Storekeeper Rule.
If a company makes clear they have no intention of hiring the unpaid intern, but implies that job opportunities in the industry will likely be available to the unpaid intern upon completion of their internship, when the employer knows that there is an overabundance of people seeking jobs in that particular industry or that a decline in the demand for work in the industry has rendered new employment prospects are bleak, they have violated the Storekeeper Rule.
Unpaid internships are ethical and helpful to the interns when they have an educational focus and are not misleading. However, an unpaid internship that attracts interns based on a promise of valuable experience or enhanced job prospects in order to receive free labor from individuals, very literally, “steals” the interns’ time, a critical time at the very start of their career paths when important career decisions have long-lasting effects.
The Shopkeeper Law keeps all of us honest.]]>
If the intern was paid minimum wage he or she would be an employee and would have workers comp insurance. Workers’ compensation is a form of insurance providing wage replacement and medical benefits to employees injured in the course of employment in exchange for mandatory relinquishment of the employee’s right to sue his or her employer for the tort of negligence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workers’_compensation).
But if an unpaid intern performs work for an employer and they get injured they are left with only one option, sue to have the employer cover the costs of medical care required to recover from the injury they sustained while performing a benefit for the business (A huge waste of time that could have been avoided).
Recently an intern for a radio station was performing a “human hockey puck” stunt during an on-ice promotion during a Nashville Predators NHL hockey game. Instead of hiting the bowling pins, he hit the side of the rink hard, fracturing his right ankle and requiring surgery. If the employees that helped him do the stunt got injured, their medical costs would have been covered, but not the interns. So now he is suing. This could have been avoided if he was an employee of the radio station. The intern, in the eyes of the law, is seen as no different than a random fan from the stands. The radio station and hockey team know not to put a random fan in potentially dangerous situations since they could get hurt. But did they think twice about shooting an intern towards bowling pins? Nope.
Check out the article (which includes a video of the actual stunt where he got injured) at Predators sued after Nashville radio’s Intern Adam breaks ankle in on-ice stunt (VIDEO)]]>
Some have conservatively estimated that in the US alone there are over 500,000 unpaid internships each year, but what exactly is an internship?
Merriam-Websters dictionary doesn’t have a definition for “internship”, but defines “intern” as “an advanced student or graduate usually in a professional field (as medicine or teaching) gaining supervised practical experience (as in a hospital or classroom).”
Wikipedia defines “internship” as, “a system of on-the-job training for white-collar jobs, similar to an apprenticeship. Interns are usually college or university students, but they can also be high school students or post graduate adults seeking skills for a new career. They may also be as young as middle school or in some cases elementary students.”
As Ross Perlin puts it in his book Intern Nation, “the very significance of the word intern lies in its ambiguity.”
While trying to answer this question, I developed the following visual diagram to help pinpoint where on the career/work spectrum internships fall.
Since there is no clear definition of just what an internship is, clarity through comparison may be a good way to help clear up the ambiguity.
There appears to be no clear and consistent answer to this question.
Looking at actual paid and unpaid internships, the National Association of Colleges and Employers concluded in their 2011 Student Survey that “paid internships are generally characterized by students having more professional level experience than unpaid internships. In reverse, students in unpaid internships appear to spend a disproportionate amount of time engaged in clerical/non-essential functions,” which is why unpaid interns consistently received less job offers and lower starting salary offers. While there are some variations in level of flexibility, workload, and office status, there seems to be no clear line that divides the two. The existence of paid internships clouds the issues when discussing just what exactly is an internship.
If an employer is paying an “intern” because of valuable work that was actually performed, then what’s the difference between a paid internship and a summer job? I’m not really sure why paid internships exist. Just call them jobs (it would certainly look better on the intern’s resume). Businesses don’t just pay people because they are feeling generous towards those they are educating and training. If the argument for unpaid internships is that the training is payment for any work, if any, that might benefit the for-profit business, then why are paid interns being paid? Remember, universities don’t pay the student they teach.
This confusion and ambiguity that surrounds internships today is an essential contributor to the “internship problem”.
If you have any suggestion on how to better define internships, please share them in the comments below.]]>
So where is the data to back it up this statement?
Well, finding data to support this assertions can be challenging because few, if any, have really tried to collect data on this topic. Try searching for U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Internships, and you will find is where to send your application for an internship with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So, until proper studies are performed, we are stuck with trying to make inferences of causation from data that shows correlation.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers stated in their 2011 Student Survey, “Unfortunately, no one has tracked the number of unpaid internships on a national level over time.” However, their 2011 survey was the first time they asked students whether their internships were paid or unpaid, providing a good baseline for future analysis of unpaid internship. But the survey found that while paid internships at for-profit companies had the best chance of producing a full-time job offer, students with unpaid internships did worse in getting full-time job offers regardless of the type of organization with which they held the internship. Faced with the data they collected they had to try to explain why their data found that all of the unpaid internships, regardless of the sector in which they took place, were connected with a median salary offer below that which a student without any internship experience received. Ultimately, they find no definitive reason for why unpaid internships did not provide an advantage to students in offers or salary. Don’t believe me, then watch this video and hear them say it.
National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Class of 2011 Student Survey Report also found, for some unknown reason, that unpaid interns did worse than students without any internship experience in terms of starting salary offers.
Median salary offer, by type of internship
(Figure from NACE 2011 Student Survey Report)
Ultimately, they conclude that the advantage interns have in terms of commanding salary fades quickly if their internship experience was of the unpaid variety.
So what other data is out there? A search of job trends on the website Indeed.com (a website that aggregates other job listing websites) shows that as unemployment started to rise in 2008, the number of job postings for unpaid internships rose.
In the graph above, I also pointed out when the Department of Labor published Fact Sheet #71 (detailing when interns must be paid), and when other prominent news articles covering the legality of unpaid internships were published. A distinct short-term drop can be seen after each one.
A search of the postings on Internships.com showed that around 75% of all internships posted were unpaid. In NYC and LA, 4939 out of 6287 of the ads posted, or 78.5%, were unpaid internships (on 2/20/12).
Furthermore, according to InternBridge.com, a large consulting company, conducted research on internships and found that 18 percent of over 12,000 student interns surveyed were both unpaid and received no credit. And of the students that received college credit for their internship, 71 percent had to pay for those credits.
So, while we will all have to wait until definitive studies are performed, speaking with unpaid interns, looking at the data that is out there, and using some common sense should lead us to conclude that there exists a justifiable foundation to the statement “The unpaid internship offers no advantage to the job-seeking student”.
The Passover story is old but not unique. Slavery in its many horrific forms has reared its ugly head all over the world for centuries. However, one type stands out as unique amongst them all, as it is the only one that is entered voluntarily.
For thousands of years, debts followed everyone to their graves. Failure to pay their debts in full could lead to debt bondage, forced labor until the debt was repaid. The Bankruptcy Act of 1898 allowed people to choose to file for bankruptcy, giving the debtor a fresh start, a chance to begin anew, and, hopefully, pursue a better life by learning from one’s past financial mistakes. Debt bondage was outlawed in the United States, until congress passed the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA). Congress essentially singled out and removed student loan debt from bankruptcy laws. Congress, pandering to special interests, has potentially put millions of students in debt bondage. (I have heard all the justifications, and none of them are legitimate. There is no real distinction between student loan debt and credit card debt. If you like BAPCPA then it should apply to everyone equally.)
If students had only racked up $60k in credit card debt, they could restructure the payments, blame predatory lending, and even discharge the debt in bankruptcy. But with $60k in non-dischargable student debt, and a market in which even entry level jobs demand prior experience, many interns find themselves in modern-day debt bondage, forced to work for free in the hopes that that will, someday, enable them to earn enough to dig their way out of debt.
Student loans are not loans at all. It’s a misnomer. Loans involve risk. The only risk being taken by student loan providers is that a debtor will die before repaying his loans, because student loans, unlike all other loans, are essentially impossible to discharge in bankruptcy. As an NPR report stated, “private lenders have been given a blank check to charge any interest rate with no-risks of default.” Consumerist has a great infographic examining how student loans work.
It’s worth reiterating, “a debtor must work to pay off his debt until he dies.”
This is where unpaid internships take this whole mess to the next level. When actual work is being performed by heavily indebted interns, and they don’t get paid for it.
When the value of the work is not applied towards the liquidation of ones debt, such as takes place in unpaid internships, the situation becomes a variation of debt bondage. It looks different because there are 3rd party loan providers, but imagine if students actually had to pay the school $60k when they graduate, and the schools were pushing them to take unpaid internships with university “friends”.
The Ten Plagues
Here are ten plagues that “unpaid internships” may inflict on all of us.
1. Help create the greatest divide in the U.S. between those with connections/money and those without. The U.S. becomes known as “The country formerly known as the land of opportunity”
2. Degrade ethical standards by giving a free pass to institutionalized deceptive practices.
3. Older generations with jobs will buy second houses, while the unemployable (those without real job experience) move back home (unpaid internship work never counts as real job experience).
4. The United States continues to become an unproductive and expensive labor force via the promotion of the misallocation of labor resources.
5. Those in academia who promoted unpaid internships soon realize that laws setting labor standards weren’t just there to protect someone else, and begin to see their own standards of living eroding (they then start to scream, but its too late).
6. Large parts of Gen Y cannot afford to enter the next stage of life and cannot financially support a family, leading to a further shrinkage of the U.S. population, and an increase in the taxes needed to fund unfunded entitlement liabilities.
7. The failure to teach Gen Y good business acumen, leads to a military led by former unpaid interns who end up giving away battleships in the hope of “networking”.
8. Debtors’ prisons are built in the hopes that the construction projects will create jobs and boost the economy.
9. Academics give up trying to convince Mastercard to accept their students’ college-credit as a form of payment.
10. The exodus begins
With young people continuing to enter the job market by the millions every year and fewer retiring workers, entry level jobs are dwindling in numbers. Many of the debt ridden millennials may find their only options are in jobs outside the United States. An option that has the added benefit of freeing themselves from their debt burden (a debt that just surpassed credit cards and auto loans combined). One doesn’t have to be Nostradamus to predict this exodus. Ben Franklin ran away from his contractual apprenticeship servitude in Boston for a new life in Philadelphia. Which country do you think the next Ben Franklin will run to?
Here are the top 5 ways to weed out the good from the bad:
1. Do your homework. Chances are, as an intern, you’re going to be treated (and utilized) in much the same way as your intern predecessors. Use that consistency to your advantage and do your homework! There are some great sites out there where interns review their internships/employers. You can glean a lot from this sort of inside information. Were these interns getting coffee and making copies all day? Were they stuck behind a desk doing data entry when they thought they’d be involved in the creative process? Did their employers mentor and train them in particular skills, or did they simply dump work on them? Peer review sites like these can be an enormously valuable asset when determining whether a particular internship will be a valuable learning experience or a waste of your time.
Similarly, if you are aware of anyone who has been or currently is an intern with that employer, reach out to them for information. Find out what their experience was like. Don’t be shy–most people are usually happy to help, especially if they had a bad experience and can help keep someone else from ending up in a similarly poor situation. Getting as much information as you can beforehand can save you a lot of frustration and wasted effort, and can help keep you from being taken for a ride by a shrewd employer.
2. Ask questions. So you got an interview–that’s great. Use the interview as an opportunity to find out as many details about the internship as you can. What will you be expected to do? How will your time be spent? What responsibilities will you have, if any? More importantly, what will your training look like? What skills can you expect to have learned or mastered by the end? Prepare a list of questions to ask that will help you to understand exactly what you should expect from your internship. Use the opportunity to get a firm grasp of what the experience will be like.
3. Set Boundaries. Before you begin, make sure you and your employers are on the same page in terms of your role as an intern and the objectives of your internship. Your role, and any responsibilities you might have, should be clearly defined and oriented around the skills you hope to acquire from the outset. Although many unpaid internships have become notorious for their lack of clear boundaries, it is that very ambiguous relationship that opens you up to spending hours of your day doing data entry as opposed to learning the skills you set out to learn. Avoid that problem by clarifying the scope of your internship beforehand, making sure you’re getting at least as much as you’re giving. Your time is valuable–make sure the experience is worth your while.
4. Be prepared to speak up for yourself. Sometimes, despite all your preparations and homework, an internship might be very different than what you were led to expect. While you may have anticipated learning the ins and outs of film production, it may turn out that your employer has other things in mind and would rather use you to get his filing or cataloging done. Be prepared to press for the deal you struck and to stick to the boundaries you’ve agreed to, however difficult it might be.
5. Know the law. As the adage goes, “knowledge is power,” and in the case of interns who otherwise have very little power in the workplace, this is particularly true. One of the most important things you can do in preparation for your internship is to become familiar with the laws that govern unpaid internships. What makes an unpaid internship legal? What is the difference between an intern doing work and any other worker? When must an intern be paid? What can I do if it seems my internship is illegally unpaid? Even a basic understanding of the laws relating to interns gives you a strong starting point in being able to distinguish between a beneficial unpaid internship and a harmful one, and will give you a good deal of power if what looked like a good unpaid internship turns out to be an exploitative unpaid job.]]>