Across the United States, thousands of college students are applying for internships. An internship is a great way for students to develop professional skills while working in the field, such as written and verbal communication. But interns often aren’t compensated fairly for their contributions.
In the summer of 2013, a group of former White House interns launched the Fair Pay Campaign to pressure President Barack Obama to pay his interns, who work Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. When about 20 percent of internships go unpaid, according to USA Today, and hours for interns are the same as for full-time employees, the legality of these types of internships comes into question.
Critics of unpaid internships believe the practice is illegal because many unpaid interns work entry-level secretary or assistant jobs without any sort of compensation. The U.S. Department of Labor has decided, and the Supreme Court has ruled, that unpaid internships at for-profit companies or organizations are legal if they are educational and do not assign tasks designated for paid employees, like picking up coffee and lunches.
But these laws are not followed as rigorously as they should be. According to the Washington Post, Fox Searchlight Pictures violated unpaid internship laws by using its interns for the film “500 Days of Summer” — without pay. The federal District Court in Manhattan ruled in favor of the interns who filed suit.
This practice is too common for the government to crack down on every violator. If a company or organization wishes to keep its internships legally unpaid, it should stray away from making interns perform entry-level work, and rather provide opportunities for students to immerse themselves into the field by handling equipment, observing meetings or working in project teams.
Of course, not all unpaid internships are living nightmares. One summer during high school, I had an unpaid internship at a state government office. I sat in on meetings with medical experts instead of running across the street to Starbucks every day. I learned more about state and local government than I ever did in school, and the relationships I built with my advisers were more rewarding than a stipend would have ever been.
Students shouldn’t be too eager to overlook unpaid internships. Many unpaid internships offer hands-on experience that is often rewarding and fulfilling, Learning and networking with others should be the most valued aspect of interning.