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:
- 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
- The training is for the benefit of the trainees or students
- The trainees or students do not displace regular employees, but work under close supervision
- 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
- The trainees or students are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period
- 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?