Summer break is just around the corner and for many West Chester University students it will be time to begin summer internships, many of them unpaid.In a story released by the New York Times, this increasing practice’s legality is being called into question for a number of reasons, most notably that it potentially violates minimum wage laws. So before young people clock in on that first hot summer day without pay, they should consider the following legal tenets of unpaid internships.
First, the training should be for the benefit of the trainee and be conducted in a manner germane to that of a vocational school. Also, the employer should derive no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainee, and the trainee should not displace any existing employee. Finally, both the trainee and the employer understand that trainees are not entitled to a job upon completion of the training.
If any of these precedents are violated, than the employer is legally bound to pay the intern for his/her time. A number of these cases have popped up recently all around the country.
The Labor Department says it is scrutinizing companies that fail to pay interns properly for their time in these circumstances and expanding efforts to educate employers, colleges and students on the law concerning internships.
The number of unpaid internships posted on Stanford University of California’s job board has tripled in the past two years, and is a microcosm of what’s happening nation-wide. The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 83 percent of graduating students had held internships, and experts estimate that between one-fourth and one-half of those internships were unpaid.
Recently, investigations have revealed that students really were displacing workers in the employer’s effort to cut costs during the recession. Also, many students have reported that they held internships that involved tedious work that contributed nothing to their understanding of the field they planned to enter. Regulators say that internships will understandably involve some unskilled work, but when the jobs are mostly drudgery, it is clearly illegal not to pay the interns.
One case involved a student who brought a sexual harassment complaint that was dismissed because she was not an employee, and thus was not protected by employment discrimination laws.
Another issue surrounding unpaid internships is that they are often implausible for students who come from blue collar families. Many less affluent students cannot afford to spend an entire summer working for no pay. Thus, if they cannot find the rare paid internship, then they fall behind wealthier classmates upon entering the job market.
Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times says, “While many colleges are accepting more moderate-and low-income students to increase economic mobility.the growth in unpaid internships undercuts that effort by favoring well-to-do and well-connected students, speeding their climb up the career ladder.”
For young people hoping to break into the workforce after graduation, unpaid internships have become a necessary evil in this country. Many employers require applicants to have experience in order to even be considered for a job, and with the recession still in this country’s rearview mirror the competition is cutthroat.
This is understandable, but there is a fine line between providing experience without pay and abusing the rights of inexperienced youngsters who are putting in the effort to get ahead.
Joshua Vaughan is a student attending West Chester University.