Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Unpaid Internships

April 7th, 2010 | Jeffrey Hirsch

No doubt following up on Charlie Sullivan’s post on unpaid law student internships, Steven Greenhouse at the New York Times has a story on the more general use of these internships.  It’s obviously been an issue for some time, but the bad economy has given employers more incentives to pinch pennies and made interns more desperate for experience, even the unpaid variety.  These internships can provide valuable experience and lead to a good job, but they can also undermine the purpose of wage laws and highlight class problems when only more wealth students can afford months of unpaid full-time work.  From the article:

With job openings scarce for young people, the number of unpaid internships has climbed in recent years, leading federal and state regulators to worry that more employers are illegally using such internships for free labor.

Convinced that many unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws, officials in Oregon, California and other states have begun investigations and fined employers. Last year, M. Patricia Smith, then New York’s labor commissioner, ordered investigations into several firms’ internships. Now, as the federal Labor Department’s top law enforcement official, she and the wage and hour division are stepping up enforcement nationwide.

Many regulators say that violations are widespread, but that it is unusually hard to mount a major enforcement effort because interns are often afraid to file complaints. Many fear they will become known as troublemakers in their chosen field, endangering their chances with a potential future employer.

The Labor Department says it is cracking down on firms that fail to pay interns properly and expanding efforts to educate companies, colleges and students on the law regarding internships.

The story also notes the DOL’s criteria for legal, unpaid internships, including similarity to academic or vocational training; no displacement of regular, paid workers; and that the employer derive no immediate advantage from the intern.  That last one, in particular, seems hard to reach in a lot of cases.

Remember that you heard it here first.

*This post originally appeared in Workplace Prof Blog on April 4, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Professor Hirsch joined the University of Tennessee law faculty in August 2004 after working in the Appellate Court Branch of the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C. and serving as a judicial clerk for the Honorable Haldane R. Mayer on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the Honorable Robert R. Beezer on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. His practice experience focused on labor and employment law and he currently writes and teaches in this area, as well as federal courts. He also regularly speaks on various aspects of labor and employment law.

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