Is Hiring Unpaid College Interns Illegal?
Many people whine about how much work they do and how little they are paid for it. It's the American way. Well, how about not getting paid at all? That's what many students are faced with when they get an internship. We, hard-working dedicated journalism students that we are, were faced with a similar circumstance when we got our summer internships.As seniors at our respective schools--Sheryl at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Jimmy at Stanford University--it was time to find an internship, an unpaid or low-paid, part-time position in a company where you learn by observing the operations of a business and, in some cases, doing work yourself. Any college student who wants to work in the media or in government will at some point work at an internship. Most members of Congress have interns, as do newspapers, TV stations, architecture firms and some high-tech businesses. It was a requirement for Sheryl to graduate and "strongly recommended" for Jimmy.At our internship, our tasks were to work 12-15 hours a week, doing a weekly column, writing stories and doing some occasional gruntwork for the editors. For the stories we wrote, we were paid half what a regular contributor would make. For everything else--the photo filing, the errand-running, and even those weekly assignments--we got paid zilch, unless you count the credit we received from our respective universities--credit we pay for.The morality of college internships is debatable. Not so obvious is that the legality may be debatable as well. Through a little investigative reporting, we uncovered something that surprised us and many of the interns and journalism mentors that we talked to: Internships may be subject to minimum-wage laws. In our investigation, we found that federal law is probably being broken by companies that don't pay their interns at least minimum wage. Of course, many businesses don't pay their interns anything at all. Many of these smaller companies would simply have scrap their internship programs if required to pay.But some of the biggest media conglomerates in America also don't pay the enthusiastic young college students who compete for internships every year. None of the major network TV news departments we talked to--ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN or even FOX--pay their interns, even though they clearly have the money to do so.THE FAIR LABOR STANDARDS ACTThat may be illegal.According to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), most workers are subject to minimum-wage laws--most interns included. In fact, the standards that a worker must meet not to be paid are near impossible. According to documents published by the U.S. Department of Labor, to become a "trainee," (the category an intern would fall under) the requirements are:* The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school. (A curriculum is followed, the students are under continued and direct supervision by either representatives of the school or by employees of the business.)* The training is for the benefit of the trainees or students. Such placements are not made to meet the labor needs of the business.* The trainees or students do not displace regular employees, vacant positions have not been filled, employees have not been relieved of assigned duties, and the students are not performing services that, although not ordinarily performed by employees, clearly are of benefit to the business.* The employer that provides the training derives no advantage from the activities of the trainees or students, and on occasion his or her operations may actually be impeded.* The trainees or students are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period.* The employer and the trainees or students understand that the trainees or students are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.These criteria are taken directly from a U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour division fact sheet from April 1994. The document also states: "It is important to understand that an employment relationship will exist unless all of the above six criteria described in this guidance are met." We called ABC News' internship coordinator for a comment. She said all interns have to prove they are receiving college credit before being hired by ABC. But she said she wasn't aware of the federal law. She then refused to give us her name.NOTHING EVER HAPPENSThere's no real way of knowing whether businesses that don't pay interns are really breaking the law because no intern has ever stood up and accused any of them of breaking it--the authors of this article included.Kathy Noel, an investigator with the Labor Department in Sacramento, says she's never heard of a complaint involving an intern anywhere in the nation. Neither has Brian Yeskovich, an investigator with the Department of Labor in Reno. It may be because interns really are being paid something: school credit.Interns often receive credit from their respective colleges for the work they perform. Many businesses refuse to take interns unless they have documentation that they will be receiving school credit. "If you are getting credit, they [media organizations] believe that they are exempt from paying interns," says Dale Maharidge, a lecturer at Stanford. "That's the belief." But according to Yeskovich, whether are interns are getting credit, they should be paid minimum wage--period. "If [students are receiving] credit, as long as an employment relationship exists, it doesn't matter," he said, emphasizing again that determinations are made on a case-by-case basis. "If all criteria of an employment relationship have been met, the provisions of the FLSA may apply."FORGETTING THE LAWAs interns, we found out about the Fair Labor Standards Act through the University of Nevada, Reno's Internship Center. It won't place students with businesses that don't pay interns, according to Nancy Markee, the university internship coordinator. But when we asked around the Reynolds School of Journalism, nobody seemed to know about the law. When we asked various news and press agencies around Reno, they said they didn't know about the law either. Even the Department of Labor seems confused about its own law.We called several different DOL Wage and Hour offices, from San Diego to Baltimore. We got different initial responses every time. But when pressed, they always came back with the same conclusion: Productive interns must be paid. The conversation we had with Ericka Hatcher, a wage and hour investigator in the Baltimore office, was typical. At first, she told us unpaid internships for school credit were legal. But all of the documentation I had received prior said the opposite.After a half-hour phone call with several delays, she finally came back and said she was glad she checked up on her initial comment. "If an intern is doing productive work, then [he or she] must be paid, and is subject to receive minimum wage and overtime pay," she said, noting that the only exception is for medical interns.But many colleges require their students to get internships, and although some internships pay, many don't. Students who can't get a paid internship must find an unpaid one if they want to graduate. All UNR journalism students must get internships for a diploma. "It's never been an issue since I've been here," said James Gentry, dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism. "I've never heard this discussed before. I guess it just never boiled to the surface. It's a hell of a good question, though."Warren Lerude, professor and the internship coordinator at UNR's Reynolds school of journalism, said he did not know about the FLSA either. Cherene Marchant, internship coordinator at the Stanford Career Planning and Placement Center, also said that she did not know about the law. Hundreds of the internships the office directs students to are unpaid. "We'll certainly pass this on," she said.NO CHALLENGESThe interns, meanwhile, don't seem to mind the fact that they may be working illegally. Former ABC News intern Jesse Oxfeld, a junior at Stanford majoring in communication, said he did not know about the law, and even questioned whether our understanding of it was correct.Oxfeld just finished a summer internship with ABC's World News Tonight With Peter Jennings. His duties included doing research for the newscasts, off-camera reporting and some interviewing. He worked nine hours a day, five days a week--unpaid. He did not receive transportation reimbursement, and said that his only financial benefit was the subsidized food in the ABC cafeteria. "I am not convinced that your understanding of [the law] is entirely accurate," said Oxfeld. "I just find it implausible that all of these companies could be engaged in so many violations, and no person or organization has ever done anything about it."We found it implausible, too. We, like thousands of other interns across the nation, won't be filing a complaint with the Labor Department to test the law. Why? Because we got a lot out of our internship. The truth is, no matter what the law says, interns benefit greatly from internships. The U.S. Congress traditionally has used unpaid interns. Previously, Congress exempted itself from all U.S. labor laws but in 1995 put itself under the same rules as everyone else. Still, some congressional interns remain unpaid.Congresswoman Barbara Vucanovich's office also wasn't aware of the FSLA rules about interns. Interns have agreed to work, in some cases, for free because they're gaining experience and--most importantly of all--references. Stanford lecturer Dale Maharidge, summed up unpaid internships the best. "You're using them, and you're being used."