This spring, I was given a social media campaign assignment in my Writing & Digital Environments course and told to create it around an issue I cared about. I chose the topic of unpaid internships because I knew it would be relevant to a broad audience. Because of a change in labor laws that was enacted in January of this year, it is perfectly OK for companies to have interns work for free (Hmm, does that have anything to do with the current president being a businessman?). The laws are all based on whether or not the intern can be considered an actual employee.
There are seven factors that decide that, but that’s where it gets messy, because no single factor qualifies or disqualifies an intern as an employee. The factors are:
- The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee — and vice versa.
- The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
- The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
- The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
- The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
- The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
- The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.
So what if your internship is unpaid but you are doing more work than learning? What if you are adding real value to a company? We can’t all take our “employers” to court for refusing to pay us, BECAUSE WE SPENT ALL OF OUR TIME WORKING FOR THEM TRYING TO “BUILD OUR RESUMES” INSTEAD OF HAVING REAL, PAYING JOBS.
The internship and job listing site WayUp created a #PayTheInterns campaign around the time of my project. On the campaign website, you can sign a petition to say you also think unpaid internships suck and learn more about the impacts of unpaid internships. You can also share your unpaid internship stories by emailing email@example.com.
A few months ago, the company emailed out an announcement that the Senate voted to pay its interns. Maybe that will set a precedent for every other workplace? We can only hope (but it probably won’t happen because capitalism).
But what can we do in the meantime besides call our representatives and hope for the best? The situation still sucks. Paid internships, especially in creative fields and marketing are like unicorns. The ones that do exist write their job postings like they deserve a medal for being decent human beings and paying students for their valuable contributions of 10+ hours a week and countless ideas: “Unlike some companies WE pay our interns.” Yeah, good for you. Sorry, you’re not a saint for doing what everyone should be doing. You’re just enough of an independent thinker to know that just because the law says you don’t have to pay interns doesn’t mean the law is right.
So what if you can’t find or don’t get accepted into those rare “generous” companies as an intern? One, don’t panic. It is not a failure on your part. Two, think about what you can afford to do. Can you commit that much time to something and still have a paid job and a life? Three, ask yourself if you wouldn’t mind doing the work for free. If it’s super fun, why not? After all, you don’t have to monetize all of your passions.
If the internship is for a nonprofit, you can tell yourself you are simply volunteering your time for a noble cause. And anyway, nonprofits are not obligated to pay you.
This is the route I took. This summer I have been serving as the blog coordinator for an adoption agency, and while I am writing every week and helping spread the word about the agency, I am also learning more about research and gathering sources while raising awareness about the wonderful opportunity of adopting from foster care. I have always wanted to get involved with helping foster care children, but had never found the opportunity. So there was a silver lining to my struggle to find and pick an internship that would be paid and fulfilling.
Still, I’m not letting for-profit companies off the hook. While some career development opportunities might just be good enough to commit to for free, that shouldn’t be our only option. I’m tired of companies acting like we should all be so damn grateful to have the honorable privilege of working for them (usually an unknown startup where all but one of the employees are male) and should never demand pay. Students may not have the paper proof yet, but we are worth more than $0 an hour.