All work and no pay: the plight of the unpaid intern

A recent Boston Globe report on the lives and times of the modern day intern has this intern thinking about his fellows out there, who may or may not be being compensated fairly.

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What makes interning, generally speaking, worthwhile? There are a few obvious things: it’s an opportunity to form professional relationships and contacts, to get your foot in the door in a place that will either help you in your chosen career path or help you figure out that path, to build your resume, to exhibit initiative and work ethic, and to receive monetary compensation–or some equivalent, such as college credits.

But what makes the unpaid intern allowable on a legal level?

First of all, non-profits and the government play by different rules than for-profits. A non-profit exemption make some sense, but, hilariously enough, the government has declared itself exempt from having to pay its interns. Talk about a conflict of interest.

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act there are six criteria that make the unpaid intern a viable option in the private sphere; these are the six that must be applied:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

In essence, according the law, the unpaid intern must be viewed as a welcome nuisance and be treated as a trainee whose presence in the work environment will not be to the competitive advantage of an employer or threaten the job security of existing employees; there may be no guarantees of future full-time employment, and this must be agreed upon by employer and intern alike.

Let’s face it, this nebulous law doesn’t make unpaid internships more difficult to come by, it makes them more of a reality, even in the private sphere, because the employer must only “suffer or permit someone to work” in a pseudo-classroom environment. In short, there is little to no risk incurred by the employer, while almost all of the risk is incurred by the person who needs it the least: the college student or recent graduate burdened by debt and an unclear future.

Perhaps then unpaid intern reform is necessary.

If the unpaid intern phenomenon must exist, which doesn’t seem to be the case, why not view him or her similarly to a Netflix free trial. Someone who doesn’t have Netflix might not be able to afford it. After doing the free trial, the perception of Netflix may shift from unaffordable luxury to necessity. Someone who doesn’t have an intern doesn’t have to worry whether they can afford one, they can just get one for free for an inordinate amount of time because economic pressures make unpaid work attractive to enough people.

I say we find a halfway point. Internships are often done in three month increments, so why not allow employers a free intern trial for up to 30 days–in accord with the six provisions above. A salary negotiation for the remaining two months must take place, if the employer would like to keep the intern.

At the end of the month the cheap employer would just tell the intern to go away, you say? Possibly not. Now that the internship ladder has more definition to it, the employee has more incentive to work hard during the 30 days, making them more of a potential asset than a useful idiot to an employer; additionally, the employer would only have to pay for two months of work not three, and for a worker they now view as necessary given the tested mettle, just like Netflix. It’s just a thought.

For all you unpaid interns out there, keep calm and carry on.

What do you think?

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