Was your internship illegal?

This past week I reviewed all of the companies who will be attending the PR internship interview day, and I noticed that very few offer paid internships. This really didn’t surprise me, since all along I’ve been told that most are unpaid positions.

But while offering unpaid internships may be the norm, it may also be illegal, according to Bill Sledzik, the author of ToughSledding, a blog about PR and how it affects our lives. Sledzik, who says he has been placing interns for 18 years and mentoring them for 30, thinks it’s crazy that students accept unpaid internships. Besides thinking that it is “the right thing to do,” he says interns should be paid because it’s the law.

His statement intrigued me, so I followed the link in his blog to an examiner.com article, which breaks down when an unpaid marketing or PR internship is illegal. Sledzik said he was skeptical when he first read the article but then reviewed it with two attorneys who are experienced with labor law, and both said it was accurate.

The article lists the six criteria (from the Fair Labor Standards Act) that must apply if a company doesn’t pay its interns, and it emphasizes that the “trainee,” (not called an intern) must meet ALL six criteria in order to be unpaid. The criteria include:

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees or students
  3. The trainees or students do not displace regular employees, but work under close supervision
  4. The employer that provides the training receives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students and, on occasion, his operations may even be impeded
  5. The trainees or students are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period
  6. The employer and the trainees or students understand that the trainees or students are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training

What stood out most to me is that using an unpaid intern to do the work that a paid employee would do is illegal, since this happens all the time. “Unpaid interns cannot be used like temps.  In other words, if you bring on an unpaid intern to do something essential, like work on a specific project, edit or write a publication, or manage your social media efforts, then you are breaking the law,” the article states. This leads me to believe that almost every unpaid internship that any Cronkite PR student ever had was probably illegal.

I then starting thinking that receiving college credit probably makes up for not paying interns, but as I read on, I learned that it isn’t true and that companies have the common misconception that it is. “If interns perform work for your company, even if they get college credit, you must treat them as employees, and they are entitled to the rights of employees, including wages,” it said.

So basically an unpaid internship should only be offered when a successful company has the money and resources to provide learning experiences for students (because it should cost them both time and money to go out of their way to help students learn). They are not for nonprofits or cash-strapped companies on a tight budget, the article states. Instead, struggling companies should hire interns (even if it’s at minimum wage) to get the job done for less money than paying a regular employee.

If only companies actually followed the law…

Have you had an illegal unpaid internship that didn’t meet the above criteria? Do you think this law will ever become more enforced? Both the author of the blog and the author of the article said that students should stop accepting unpaid positions. Do you think you would ever mention this law when interviewing for an unpaid internship, or after you’ve received an offer?

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10 Responses to Was your internship illegal?

  1. kwashburn says:

    Great topic. I definitely think that working for no pay is stressful, difficult and frustrating but it really isn’t about the income aspect in my view.

    I think the whole point of an internship is to learn and gain knowledge and experience from a position. It is supposed to broaden your interests and possibly motivate you to search for a permanent job within that specific company or field. I used to have an internship that was an hour away from my house, commuting every morning and evening 5 days per week for no pay. I definitely put in my share of gas money, travel time and hard work for that internship, but I never had the idea to discontinue my short time as an intern there because I wasn’t receiving money.

    If companies all followed this exact basis for providing internships, the number of opportunities would take a major plunge and ultimately we would suffer the repercussions. We would not be able to have the invaluable time with a company, network with people we normally would not be able to meet and gain skills only attainable through hands-on work and experience. I definitely think students should still accept internships even if they aren’t getting paid.

  2. crandell says:

    AHHHH. First off, I just want to thank you for writing on this topic. It is something that needs to be addressed. It only frustrates me because according to your sources, I have been working illegally for the past three years. Currently, I am working at a PR internship, which required me to receive college credit instead of financial compensation. As frustrating as that was, I realized I was making an investment in my future and agreed to the position for the valuable experience. We are taught at school and at home that this is the “right” thing to do and that this assist us in the job hunting process. But this being my third non-paid internship in three years, how can it not feel like I am being used for free labor? On my first, the PR coordinator quit, and not even one month later, the PR director left. I have my own cubicle and work almost three full days a week. I am writing website content, promotional blurbs for media relations, as well as drafting press releases and maintaining our clips. I feel that even though I only work 3 days a week, me and the other intern maintain the entirety of the PR coordinator’s position, which our employer has yet to fill since we’ve been there. It is so frustrating that they don’t compensate us interns for our work, considering initially they were paying someone to do the job we are doing. It hits home even harder when we are seniors and graduating in May. In six weeks, I will no longer be considered a student and no longer want to be referred to as a “trainee” or “intern”.

  3. lmontijo says:

    What a great topic! As students who are trying everything to get ahead in this jobless economy, we take internships that we think are going to give us the most experience while disregarding or even ignoring the fact that we aren’t getting paid for it. I work at a PR internship where the other intern and I do a lot of the same work the PR director does. It IS great experience, but it also hurts my shrinking bank account hard when I have to drive at least 20 minutes a day to and from the internship AND attend special events that are in the middle of nowhere. I feel you on this post completely!

    Especially as PR professionals, these firms should be smarter and give future PR colleagues a little compensation as we help them out. It’s all about relationships right? My previous internship at the Arizona Republic paid every intern more than I would have ever expected, and guess what? I loved going into work! Also, in case you haven’t heard, newspapers are dying and they are having to lay people off and STILL they understand the importance of paying their interns.

    I wouldn’t think of quitting my internship because I’m not that type of person, but getting paid would be nice.

  4. dsmith says:

    I agree with the other commenters that this is DEFINITELY a topic that needs to be shed light upon. It really makes me think twice about the internships I’ve done and whether they’ve been legal or not. Another criteria I think that is not addressed that should be is the number of unpaid interns/trainees an agency has working for them. If the amount of unpaid interns exceeds the number of full time staff at the company or if it’s even, I think there is a serious ethical problem with that.

    While it definitely may be frustrating to put your time in and not get paid, I still don’t think it would be wise to turn down an internship because it is unpaid. Gaining industry experience prior to graduating is far more valuable than getting cash, in my opinion.

  5. hhoma says:

    I’m glad you all like the topic. Did you know unpaid internships were illegal (in most cases) prior to reading this? I sure didn’t before reading that blog post and article.

    kwashburn – It’s great that you worked so hard and had such a long commute without ever thinking twice! Sadly, I think some people might not work as hard without pay as they would if they were getting paid (which is another reason why the blog author argued that companies should pay their interns).

    crandell – It’s ridiculous that you and the other intern are picking up the slack for those two empty positions. Do you know if the company you are interning with has plans to fill them? My guess is that they are realizing that interns working for free can produce the same – if not better – results, and they will probably continue to “hire” unpaid interns instead.

    dsmith – I definitely agree that it is unethical to have more (or an equal number of) unpaid interns than paid employees. I wonder how often this happens in small companies, and I’m guessing it’s pretty common, since so many students just want experience and will “take what they can get,” as evidenced in one of the other blog posts.

  6. srugeris says:

    I would agree this is a great topic for discussion, thanks for posting hhoma. Even though some of us may have had internships in the past that are technically illegal, criteria five and six are really what voids all fault from the employer unless they promised a job or promised compensation and that was agreed upon in writing.

    The six criteria and guidelines seem a bit vague and are probably hard to prove in court because of the language used and the loopholes that become available. Especially if it came down to taking legal action against a PR firm for example, it would probably be handled under the table to avoid any stains on public perception.

    Seeking retribution based on resentment of an unpaid internship probably wouldn’t get someone very far unless criteria number six was broken and the company withheld a paycheck from them.

    I was talking about this with a classmate the other day and he told me that the school mentor teaching program he worked for refused to cut him a check after they had a set agreement and then blamed it on budget cuts. It’s one of those things that make you think that it must be illegal. Unfortunately since nothing was in writing it was like it never happened. My experiences tells me that no matter how credible a company seems, the things they promise must be signed in writing to really solidify any work agreement.

  7. cmcelroy says:

    Wow what a great topic. I’m on the same page as most everyone here, in that I’m pretty sure this means that every internship I’ve had has been illegal. I think one of the most frustrating things is that I have almost always heard people say that the best internships are the unpaid ones. As such, I’ve always resigned myself to taking on unpaid positions for the benefit of the experience. I would never trade in the internships that I’ve had, they were ridiculously rewarding, but it is unfortunate that this has become the standard.

    I do think it is kind of an unending cycle, though. I’d like to say that if I’d had this information on hand when I was offered internships before that I’d say something, but the truth is I probably wouldn’t. When the competition for the internship is already so steep, it’s hard to stand up for something like this. Plus, I worry that even if people did start demanding pay, the employers would have about a hundred other applicants waiting to accept the position for credit-only. And as Sam said, I think proving any wrongdoing in court would be an uphill battle. Ultimately, I think getting the experience and building up your resume is the most important part of an internship, and if the only way to do that is to take an unpaid position, so be it.

  8. hhoma says:

    lmontijo – I, too, interned at the Arizona Republic and felt very fortunate to be receiving a paycheck, especially when others around me were being laid off and forced to take furlough days. I also loved working there, and I wonder if I would have enjoyed it as much if I wasn’t getting paid.

    srugeris – In my opinion, it’s criterion four that would be the easiest to prove that a company’s unpaid internship is illegal. It states, “The employer that provides the training receives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students and, on occasion, his operations may even be impeded.” My guess is that any work that an intern does, whether it’s editing or writing a document or updating facebook and twitter statuses, would most likely be viewed as an immediate advantage to the company. I actually think this would be easy to fight and win if it was ever brought to the courts because of this criterion alone.

    cmcelroy – I agree with you that this is an unending cycle. Even if people starting talking about the topic more and started understanding that these internships are illegal, I still don’t think that anything would change. Like you said, if some people started demanding pay, there would still be many others who would work without it.

  9. vlumpkin says:

    I agree that this is a fantastic topic. Too many times today interns are hired on as free labor. The most interesting and unsettling trend I’ve noticed is that many of the unpaid interns are more qualified than the paid employees they are working under. Of course many people end up in careers that do not mirror their college majors, but I find it a bit ridiculous that I have seen intelligent, experienced, up-and-coming public relations superstars doing unpaid grunt work under supervisors who do little and take all of the credit. It’s extremely unsettling.
    Students in the Cronkite School have worked extremely hard in the rigorous curriculum to maintain entry-level positions that will lead to public relations success, not to be used as a work mule.

    I really like the criteria you mentioned for unpaid internships. I hope these are something the Cronkite School looks into more when accepting unpaid internship offers for its students as I know for a fact some companies that attend the fairs are not abiding by them.

  10. rnettleship says:

    Excellent topic. I completely agree with your stance on unpaid internships. I wish that most, if not all, of the internships that the Cronkite School offered were paid. However, the majority of internships — no matter how substantial they are — are unpaid. That is just how it has always been, and most people are against change. For most, change isn’t east and I fight it very difficult to imagine a day in the near future where most internships are paid.

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