By Benjamin Shumate
Brown Political Review, January 6, 2018 —
The internship search is a frenzy that college students across the country undergo every single year — meticulously crafting their LinkedIn profiles and sending out cover letters far and wide to find one opportunity. The exercise can be overwhelming and stressful; as each year of college goes by, the pressure mounts to get your foot in the door at your dream company or in your preferred industry.
Many students who are fortunate enough to earn said position will end up working the entire summer, sometimes up to 40 hours per week, while not being paid a dime for their work. On top of the extraordinary pressure to find an internship, companies across industries frequently skirt the poorly-enforced rules on paying their interns, reaping a summer’s worth of work at the expense of college kids looking for experience.For many, taking an unpaid internship isn’t even an option. Not all students can afford to work an entire summer without compensation, and on top of that, pay living expenses in cities like Providence, Boston or New York City. Unpaid internships actively reinforce the socioeconomic divide among students at elite colleges, many of which already admit more students from families in the top 1% than the entire bottom 60% combined.
If a seemingly logical political consensus on better enforcement of rules for unpaid internships cannot be reached, the burden to end this exploitative and immoral practice will have to fall on the shoulders of students themselves.
The Department of Labor and the justice system has narrowed down six requirements that an internship must meet to be exempt from paying. In a nutshell, the position has to entail training for the explicit benefit of the intern, no other employees can be displaced because of the position, the employee understands going in that they aren’t entitled to payment or a paying job at the end and the company gains no advantage whatsoever from the internship. If even one of those criteria is not met, then the intern is entitled to receive federal and state minimum wages.
These criteria have been reinforced through court cases in recent years, in which unpaid interns were retroactively given compensation through class action. These cases led outlets like The Atlantic to proclaim the end of unpaid internships; yet, searching any internship board will show these positions are still widely offered. Furthermore, many of these unpaid internships seem to fail the DOL’s six-point test. If the only way interns can secure their legal compensation is by putting together a class action lawsuit after the fact, there is a clear enforcement problem; college students, especially after spending three months working without pay, don’t have the resources to pursue these costly legal cases.
The problem at the heart of these arrangements is that of incentives. For the companies, the motivation is clear — being allowed to pick from a pool of talented and eager students willing to work for free is a pretty proposition. For students, getting a foot in the door, even if it means working for free, seems to be a long term investment surely to pay off in the labor market down the road. Furthermore, the hyper-competitive academic environment at some schools pushes students to sacrifice a summer of compensation in order to gain a leg up over their peers. With lax enforcement of labor regulations, this student desperation plays right into the hands of companies who jump for joy at the prospect of a summer’s worth of free labor.
Students should seriously rethink their perceived incentives. A 2015 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed that students who took a paid internship were more likely to get a full time job and earn more straight out of school than students who took an unpaid internship.
Furthermore, students who worked as unpaid interns in local or state government fared worse in the post-graduate labor market than students who didn’t work an internship at all. A ProPublica investigation into unpaid internships revealed that interns who aren’t paid as employees are not protected by the Civil Rights Act or by U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In spite of this gross negligence and exploitation, the investigation found that between 500,000 – 1 million people work as unpaid interns every single year.
A divided Congress could very well find consensus on ensuring that interns are paid minimum wage at the very least, either through calling upon the DOL to step up enforcement or through unique legislation. Although it seems at face value to be a largely liberal issue — since it entails legislation of stricter labor laws — conservatives who embrace laissez-faire capitalism can also find fairness for interns compatible with their ideology. A typical counter-argument to raising the minimum wage is that the $7.25 federal floor is most applicable to young people with little job experience. Conservatives using this point as fodder against a $15/ hour minimum wage have to maintain some logical consistency in ensuring that those young people they ascribe the minimum wage to are, at the very least, receiving it. Funnily enough, more Republican Senators actually pay their interns than Democratic ones. All around, though, the numbers aren’t pretty — just over half of Republican Senators pay interns as compared to 31 percent of Democratic Senators. For all the political rhetoric, it seems as if students shouldn’t count on this issue being solved from a legislative standpoint.
Instead of relying on legislation from above, college students should come together and demand to be treated fairly.
The internship process is always going to be competitive among students; however, socio-economic status should not be a differentiating factor. The research shows that taking a paying summer job in favor of an unpaid internship doesn’t have detrimental effects for students entering the labor market after graduation. Even still, the fact that students from lower-income backgrounds are excluded from these positions at the hands of companies skirting federal labor laws merits oversight. Summer jobs might not be as glamorous as unpaid internships at large companies and industry giants. However, every unpaid internship filled this upcoming summer will be further incentive for those companies to skirt the law and exploit college students desperate to build their professional resume. If we as students value fairness, economic opportunity and upward mobility for all, we all should leave companies who refuse to pay their interns searching.