Guest Column: U.S. Labor Department should update its standards to protect unpaid interns

Kimberly Grano

As spring quarter approaches, many students will be scrambling to apply for those coveted intern positions that require them to work all summer — for no paycheck.

In many fields, paid employment is becoming increasingly scarce for college students and recent graduates, while unpaid internships are becoming all the more appealing for students looking to supplement their resumes with work experience.

Though this system may sound like a win-win for employers and college students, a growing trend of internships that violate labor laws have some interns fighting back. For instance, Xuedan Wang, a former intern at Hearst Corporation, is looking to file a class action lawsuit against companies that abuse the system, using unpaid interns to do the work of paid employees.

This is a positive step toward ensuring that businesses do not take advantage of their young interns, many of whom would jump at the chance to fetch coffee or file paperwork if it would increase their chances of landing a paying job in the industry later on.

The UCLA Career Center is aware of the growing problem of illegal unpaid internships, said Anthony Bediones, a peer adviser at the Career Center and fourth-year communications studies student.

Bediones said the Career Center audits companies looking to list their internship opportunities with UCLA in order to make sure that the positions they offer are legitimate.

However, students looking for internships elsewhere may find them to be less than ideal. The U.S. government can do more to clarify the Department of Labor’s rules, which are ambiguous and hard to enforce, and to stop businesses from trying to circumvent the true purpose of an internship.

The Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department currently has a six-point test to determine whether an unpaid internship is legal, and after reviewing these standards it becomes clear that there are some blatant offenders.

For one, interns have to be the main beneficiary of their internship, and receive the same type of training that they would receive at a vocational school in their field. In reality, many interns spend their days running errands or doing other menial tasks, hardly activities that companies could claim to be educational.

Though UCLA graduate business student Aditya Khargonekar has had positive experiences during his several paid and unpaid internships, he said unpaid internships are generally less structured because employers are less invested, meaning the interns must be more proactive. Khargonekar said that as long as people are willing to participate in subpar internships, employers have the upper hand.

Another requirement for unpaid internships is that employers must receive no “immediate advantage” from the actions of the intern, and they also cannot use interns in the place of paid workers. Not only is it unclear what constitutes an “immediate advantage,” but it is unlikely that most businesses trying to turn a profit take on interns for the altruistic purpose of training and educating them, without receiving any benefit of their own.

But if these employers are receiving free labor from desperate college students, why do so few of the interns speak out against them? The problem lies in the hyper-competitiveness of the workforce among recent college graduates, who find that they need experience for even an entry-level job.

The current situation recalls a time before minimum-wage laws were instituted, when there was so much available labor that big businesses could drop wages as low as they pleased and still have people willing to work. Of course, answering telephones or sorting mail does not compare to working in coal mines or meat-packing factories, but the same principle of fair pay for labor is still being violated.

If the Department of Labor starts to strictly enforce their standards, students will stop feeling that working for free is now a necessity to getting ahead in the future. A study from the Economic Policy Institute proposes reforming the current six-point standards to a simpler test in which the cost of taking on an intern to an employer is compared to the benefit of taking on an intern to an employer.

If the employer reaps more rewards as compared to its costs, then the intern is not receiving a fair benefit and should be compensated. Hopefully, the result of more enforcement will lead to fewer unpaid internships and more paid internships, or at least improve the quality of training provided to unpaid interns by employers.

As it stands now, unpaid internships are only an option for students who can afford to take a summer off of paid work, so many lower-income students miss out on an opportunity to gain experience in their desired field.

While paying interns or providing genuine instruction requires companies to sacrifice a little more money, that is the law. The Department of Labor should step up enforcement and consider altering their standards to more easily protect unpaid interns. Just because students will work for free does not mean they should have to.

Daily Bruin, U. California-Los Angeles via UWIRE