Juliette Dallas-Feeney: The unpaid revolution

A revolution is coming. And it will not be funded. At least for now. Who’s going to revolt? Unpaid interns.

I’m a three-time unpaid intern. No stipends, no transportation reimbursements, no paid lunches. In fact, for credit-based internships, my parents have technically had to pay for me to be an intern.

This is the norm rather than the exception for most students pursuing internships during their college years. It’s not uncommon for a GW student to work at an unpaid internship on the Hill for 20 hours a week, have a paying part-time job, take five classes, and squeeze in homework and a social life.

Most employers expect new hires to have some work experience before venturing out in the workforce. Gone are the days when a college degree sufficed. The assumption is these internship experiences will allow students to develop skills for their chosen career paths in order to land a job. But out-of-work adults and people with law degrees are also resorting to unpaid internships as a result of the economy. Twenty-year-olds are fighting for the same uncompensated work as 27-year-olds.

Unfortunately, there’s sometimes a fine line between unpaid internships and slave labor. The U.S. Department of Labor has a list of criteria that must be met in order for an internship to be unpaid, including the following: “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.” In other words, the work I do at my internship cannot benefit the company or the way it runs its business in any way. According to these criteria, it’s essentially illegal for me to file papers, organize a co-worker’s calendar, or deliver mail.

While most of my internship experiences have truly been hands-on learning opportunities with employers who genuinely wanted to teach me, I’ve had my share of typical intern duties. Of course, I would grin and bear it, knowing I had to pay my dues.

But should I have been more aware of my legal rights? I had every right to say no. I don’t mind photocopying every now and then, but if my internship consisted only of mind-numbing tasks like getting coffee for the office and organizing the storage closet when I thought I’d be gaining some actual work experience, I would have benefited from knowing I had the authority to change my situation. Unpaid internships like these are the elephants in the room. No one brings these cases to court for fear of burning bridges with employers and losing a job reference.

Furthermore, the class divide unpaid internships create is rarely addressed. Some parents can afford to essentially pay for their children’s living expenses while they work for free in expensive cities like the District and New York. But many families can’t afford this, so some students have to choose a paid job that has nothing to do with their career field. And in some instances, unpaid internships are actually being touted as a practical option for out-of-work young adults and recent college graduates who can’t find a job. Universities should help students and their families who cannot afford to get by on an unpaid internship. Likewise for students who don’t have the time for a part-time job.

Universities should provide resources so that students (and alumni) can apply for funding for unpaid internships.

An internship should be a training program offered by a company, not free help for an office. There needs to be stricter rules for employers when it comes to hiring interns. If a company can’t afford to pay its interns an hourly wage, it should at least provide transportation reimbursement and money for lunch. This would cost the company at most about $100 per intern a week. There should also be an employer-intern contract outlining specifically what is expected of the intern and employer. If any criteria are violated, human resources or legal counsel should be involved.

Besides some occasional babysitting jobs, I rely on my parents for financial help. I feel lucky that they have been able to financially support my choice to work at three unpaid internships. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to be an unpaid intern for the rest of my life. It’s ludicrous to think that I’ve put my time in at these internships, I’ve made no money, I’m getting my bachelor’s degree in a few months, and I still have to think about the prospect of working for free yet again. We are smart and more than capable, and we shouldn’t settle for photocopying as the only bullet point on our resumes.

The writer, a senior majoring in women’s studies, is a Hatchet columnist.

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