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The End of Unpaid Internships?

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Although we are a nation of laws, those laws aren’t always followed. But if there’s one rule that’s being broken across the board by corporations, it’s those relating to unpaid internships.

A piece from Human Resource Executive Online explains what’s been happening:

Although the Department of Labor issued informal guidance on trainees as part of its Field Operations Handbook back in 1967, some employers still push their luck by observing old practices that cross legal boundaries. More than 30 cases have been filed on behalf of unpaid interns in the past four years, according to the 2016 Employer’s Guide to Developing a Successful Internship, published by Gonzaga University Career Center in Spokane, Wash. The fallout from this parade of legal action, according to some employment attorneys, is that employers are either scaling back their unpaid internships or replacing them with programs offering a minimum wage or stipend.

Interns

© Flickr user Yahoo

This isn’t the first time we’ve covered internships here on The Methodology Blog. Ashley Lee wrote about questions of fairness. We’ve also talked about how unpaid workers impact workplace culture and even how the sports business gets a pass.

But given all the lawsuits that are happening—as well as the fact that university placement departments are pushing back—we might be seeing the demise of the unpaid internship. Certainly, we’ll see more people following the rules if they do offer them. But as the HR Executive Online article notes:

Of the Department of Labor’s six internship guidelines, employers are more likely to violate two specific rules: that unpaid interns cannot displace regular employees and the internship is supposed to benefit the intern more than the employer.

These criteria aren’t easy to meet. If an intern does work that an employee could be doing, that intern is potentially displacing employees. You could be hiring more employees (or giving existing employees more work) but that unpaid intern is there. In order to show that you aren’t displacing employees, than the work the intern is doing is likely to be stuff that wouldn’t get done otherwise.

The second criteria is even tougher. The law specifies that the intern must benefit more than the employee. According to Kelly Scott, a partner at the Ervin Cohen & Jessup law firm in Beverly Hills, internships are supposed to be the “ultimate in education.” But that means bringing on an unpaid intern means you’re focused more on helping them than having them help you.

An Old Problem With An Obvious Solution

It’s not as if this is anything new. A piece in the New York Times by The Ethicist indicates that internships may be a “rip-off.” PayScale asks if internships are slave labor. And Forbes argues that having an unpaid internship makes you less employable.

The obvious solution to this problem is to pay interns and call them “employees.” For the most part, interns are on a professional career path. Offering them the Federal minimum wage is far below what they would be paid when they graduate. And it’s not as if one more year of college is going to make a dramatic difference in their knowledge.

Virtually Every Workplace Issue is About Respect

The reason that we don’t pay interns and we expect them to provide value to us is because we don’t respect them as much as we respect full-time employees. A lack of respect also explains most other challenges we have in the workplace: keeping secrets, various types of harassment and discrimination, distrusting employees, and questioning loyalty.

Respect: Easy to talk about but hard to do. If you’ve got employees that are providing real value but you aren’t paying them (or aren’t paying them enough) and you know you’re getting away with it, chances are they don’t feel respected.

There’s no substitute for dignity. Remember that with your interns, your vendors, your employees, and your customers.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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