A proliferation of unpaid internships has created enough resentment among students that some are pushing back against corporate America.
They are using everything from Twitter to lawsuits to make a case for change. Legal experts and others say the problem is rooted in a 75-year-old federal labor law that is woefully out of date.
Unpaid internships have grown increasingly popular during the past decade, particularly during the recent recession. And they have widened the gulf in opportunities between students from high-income families, who can afford to work free for a summer, and those from low-income families, who cannot.
Among the latter is Emily Coldiron, 22, who graduated from Denison University last month. The sociology/anthropology major from Wichita, Kan., is from a low-income, single-parent household, and she went to college knowing that she would have to pay her own way.
She left college feeling disadvantaged because she had no internship experience. She said she could not find a paid internship in her field during summer breaks from college.
“It is definitely hard,” says Coldiron about the choice between a paying job and the experience of an unpaid internship. “It can also be discouraging.”
A 2010 study by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C., found that “the choice to take an internship is not only contingent on a student’s qualifications, but also on his or her economic means, thus institutionalizing socioeconomic disparities beyond college.”
And the economics for many are worse than simply working for no pay. College students who worked at unpaid internships for companies following the law often must pay for the opportunity. Federal work rules allow for unpaid internships only if the internship meets certain criteria, among them being that the interns receive college credit for the work.
At many colleges, a student would have to pay to enroll in a class — as much as several thousand dollars, depending on the school — so that he or she could receive credit. For some, that would mean taking out a loan.
Having at least one internship has become an unspoken rule for post-college employment, and the plethora of unpaid internships puts low-income students at a social and professional disadvantage, said Brian Collingwood, assistant director of Denison University’s Career Exploration and Development office. It could even hurt their chances of continuing their education, he said.
“Having internship experience can also be important for an application into graduate school,” he said.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers, which represents human-resources professionals who recruit recent college graduates, says that 64.1 percent of students report they would have to work a second job if they accepted an unpaid internship. Only 29 percent of students report that their parents would help to support them financially if they chose to take part in an internship.
And the organization headquartered in Bethlehem, Pa., said that students from middle- and upper-income families are likely to take an unpaid internship with the hope of turning it into fulltime employment, as they have fewer worries about financial stability.
Yet, counterintuitively, a survey by the association in 2012 found that a student’s chances for full-time employment after an internship are far better with companies that offer paid internships.
The survey showed that that 60 percent of 2012 graduates who worked at paid internships got at least one job offer, while just 37 percent of those who worked at unpaid internships received any offers — which is only 1 percentage point higher than those with no internship.
“These results are consistent with what we saw last year with the class of 2011,” says Marilyn Mackes, NACE executive director. “Students with a paid internship have a decided advantage in the job market over those who did an unpaid internship or didn’t do an internship at all.”
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Some college students use social media such as Twitter and Facebook to push back against unpaid internships. And at least three have taken legal action with the help of the New York law firm Outten & Golden:
• In September 2011, Eric Glatt and Alex Footman filed suit against Fox Searchlight for work they did as unpaid interns on the movie Black Swan. On Oct. 9, 2012, a New York court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to expand the scope of the case to include all interns who participated in the Fox Entertainment Group internship program, effectively making the case a class-action lawsuit. The case is still working through the courts.
• In February 2012, Xuedan “Diana” Wang sued the Hearst Corporation for work she did as an unpaid intern at the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. Wang worked for the magazine for four months, during which she said she sometimes worked up to 55 hours per week. The case later expanded to a class-action to include all of Hearst’s interns during the past three years. And then, in May, a New York judge dismissed the class action, saying the interns would have to file individually. Wang’s case is still pending in court.
• In March 2012, former intern Lucy Bickerton of the Charlie Rose Show sued the host. Outten & Golden brought the suit to class-action status to include another 188 interns who said they worked on this PBS show without pay.
That case was settled in December 2012 with an agreement that the former interns would be paid up to $1,100 each, with total compensation of about $250,000.
In a recent interview, Wang, now of Columbus, said Hearst interns lamented among themselves about “being used and abused, but that was the cycle you had to go through for even the hope of getting a job, so no one complained.”
The 2010 Ohio State graduate, who operates her own granola-making company, Fare City Feed, from German Village, said she worked 12-hour days and did everything from take out the trash to manage fellow interns. Some of her fellow interns in the fashion editorial industry were on their fifth or sixth unpaid internship and were expecting to have to do more before they could land a paying job, she said.
“To be honest with you, I don’t hope to see a bunch of employers getting sued by former interns,” said Wang, now 29. “I do believe that at times like this, something kind of extreme (like my case) needs to happen, or nobody will take the matter seriously. I hope that Hearst does serve as an example to all companies that think it might be advantageous to pass work onto interns without paying them.”
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