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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Unpaid internships’ legality called into question

In an economy perpetually headed south while tuition costs skyrocket in the opposite direction, students may take solace in the questioning of unpaid internships’ legality.

An increase in for-profit companies’ unpaid internships has accompanied their financial troubles in the current economic crisis. However, Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the U.S. Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division, stated in a recent New York Times’ article that there are not many circumstances in which for-profit employers can have unpaid interns and still be within the law.

UC Davis School of Law Professor Emeritus Martha West acknowledged that the increase in for-profit unpaid internships is a new development, which stems from the current recession.

“Most internships have been with nonprofits or government agencies. [For-profit companies] haven’t been very interested before, but it seems to me that for-profits are now using interns in place of employees and this violates federal wage and hour rules,” said West, who specializes in labor law. “Because of the recession, companies are more interested in getting free help.”

A list of six federal legal criteria distinguishes a paid internship from an unpaid internship. One such criterion explains that an intern should receive an educational experience or training of sorts, resembling that of an academic institution. Coffee runs would fall under a paid position, whereas learning how to read an x-ray monitor would be considered an unpaid internship. Another criterion states that the employer “derives no immediate advantage” from the internship.

However, Marcie Kirk Holland, project manager of the UC Davis Internship and Career Center, believes this specific point does not accurately reflect an internship’s true nature.

“I think the most important thing about an internship is that it’s mutually beneficial to both students and the organization,” Holland said. “I think it’s unrealistic to expect an organization to provide training without a return on the investment.”

Companies voice dissent over this particular measure as well. A main tenant of the argument is that the six criteria rest on a 1947 Supreme Court decision, which they claim to be outdated.

No official steps have been taken to alter the list in anyway but many, including Krisann Chasarik, spokesperson for the California Labor Commissioners Office, preach the value of educating and protecting students as fundamental to preventing further illegal internships.

“One of the most effective levels of making sure that an intern does fall under the paid range is to file a wage claim. That would force the company to pay all the back wages if they’re found in violation,” Chasarik said.

The Internship and Career Center promotes extra precautions to ensure the roughly 6,000 student interns each year at the university are not taken advantage of. The safe guards take the form of a three-part process, with the first being an agreement to the terms of the internship between the student and the supervisor. In this proposal both speak of expectations, goals, tasks and other factors conducive to the internship. Step two is an evaluation from the site supervisor, while the final step is a student written evaluation of the internship.

“We use this as quality control,” Holland said. “Some internships don’t get posted. We must approve them and they need to meet certain criteria.”

However, Holland emphasizes that the reality is many internships are unpaid. Students gain experiential learning, which employers look for.

“You hear the stories about the Ivy League graduate with no job. Well, what kind of experience do they have?” Holland said.

KELLEY REES can be reached at city@theaggie.org.

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