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Wednesday, December 06, 2023
intern stock photo
intern stock photo

Unpaid internships. Many of us have done one. If you haven't, you’re one of the lucky ones. For a long time, unpaid internships have been considered a rite of passage for college students looking to gain experience in their field. However, the morality of unpaid internships has recently come into question.

Many people have taken to Twitter to express their opinion on this divisive issue. User @ogwalterjones said, “An unpaid internship is an opportunity to network and gain experience. If you can't adjust your life in order to afford to take it, then you probably aren't adaptable enough to be successful.”

However, user @kyliesparks said, “I’ll give you a free lesson: exploitative work (unpaid internships) is designed to keep people poor which unfairly targets people of color, queer people, and trans people.”

While I think there is merit to both arguments, it is undeniable that those able to do unpaid internships have a privilege. They have some other reliable means of income, typically financial support from parents that give them the ability to pursue an unpaid internship. Therefore, low inncome students who had to take that minimum wage summer job instead of the unpaid internship are at a disadvantage compared to wealthier students in the job hiring process.

There are valid reasons for some internships to be unpaid. For example, small companies providing internship opportunities may not have the resources to pay their interns. Interns also often lack the knowledge or expertise compared to paid workers. They have yet to finish school thus are only qualified to do so much for a company. Therefore, it’s reasonable that companies may not want to pay interns who are only capable of doing a limited number of tasks compared to actual employees.

Many unpaid internships do not constitute a full 40-hour work week. These interns often work only a few days a week, allowing them to hold a part-time job if needed.

So, the question is: are unpaid internships fair? Well, usually.

The pros of an unpaid internship often outweigh the cons for most college students and while in an ideal world all interns would be paid, this just isn’t practical. If the law suddenly changed to require all internships to be paid there would be a significant decrease in the number of internship opportunities available. Smaller companies would have to stop providing valuable learning experiences for students because of the inability to pay interns. This ultimately creates a less experienced pool of students graduating from college and entering the workforce.

Currently, the legality of an unpaid internship is determined by the federally mandated “Primary Beneficiary Test,” meaning that unpaid internships are legal as long as the intern, not the employer, is the primary beneficiary of the work arrangement. This standard is completely subjective as interns and employers can have completely different beliefs on who benefits the most from the arrangement.

Because the standard is so subjective it's hard to enforce. Therefore, many college students are being taken advantage of for their willingness to perform free labor.

But wait, didn’t I just say unpaid internships were fair? While I believe unpaid internships are fair in principle, most aren’t actually lawful. Most unpaid internships are unlawful per federal law, as they are only lawful when the for-profit company does not derive an “immediate advantage” from an intern’s work. And in the private sector, work that doesn’t benefit the company is rare. Therefore, the law needs to take into consideration more than just who benefits most in the employer-intern relationship. A holistic look at internships that considers multiple factors, such as hours worked and company profits will lend itself to a fairer law that is actually enforceable.

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