Opinion » Column | Sept. 16
For students who’ve either put off the summer job search for far too long, or have been sent back gentle rejection letter after gentle rejection letter, the month before finals was when desperation set in. No longer just limiting themselves to the modest postings on Tiger Tracks, students scoured the web for anything that even vaguely resembled something they could do for a stretch of six-to-10 weeks over the summer.
The vast majority of people will find something to do over the summer eventually, whether it’s an internship at Goldman in New York City, or an anthropology class to take at the local university. As students get increasingly desperate for something – anything – to put on their resumes, they become more willing to take on an internship that’s entirely unpaid. And because of this, many companies exploit student distress; knowing that most of the time, they’ll be willing to work a job deserving payment for absolutely free.
The unpaid internship controversy has been brewing for quite some time now, sparked in large part by a series of disgruntled interns suing their former employers (Diddy and Fox Searchlight Pictures, for example) for giving them more work than should be expected of a 19-year-old and compensating them with nothing. The United States Department of Labor’s rules about unpaid labor are sensible in theory, but very difficult to enforce in practice. Basically, interns who receive more out of the internship than do their employers do not necessarily have to be compensated for their time. However, even despite the guidelines that the Department of Labor outlines to help determine whether an intern falls into that category, the entire affair seems to be shrouded in gray area.
I think there’s an easy way to clear up the matter. If an intern isn’t actually doing anything, they don’t need to be compensated. Like shadowing a surgeon for several weeks. Learning how the ER works and what the hospital environment is like obviously benefits the intern more than the doctor, who might arguably even be slightly annoyed by someone following them around everywhere. In a situation like this, it’s pretty apparent that the intern doesn’t need to be compensated because, while they’re learning quite a lot about a possible career path, they aren’t contributing anything concrete to their employer in return.
The gray area as it stands is that some interns who do do work — whether it be research in a lab or fetching coffee and filing papers — are compensated and others are not. This shouldn’t be the case. All interns who are benefitting their employer in any way should be paid at least minimum wage. The most notorious field to offer unpaid summer work is the entertainment industry. Because breaking into the field is so difficult, people see unpaid internships as a sort of due that must be paid. Last year, 20 unpaid interns sued Fox Searchlight Pictures for their stints as unpaid interns on the set of “Black Swan.” Though the movie went on the make over $300 million, the interns were never compensated for their work, which involved essential tasks such as making spreadsheets and drawing up purchase orders. They eventually went on to win the lawsuit.
It’s clear here that even the courts view unpaid internships as unfair. Interns working on production sets are often asked to do menial tasks — getting coffees, doing rote paperwork — that don’t benefit them in any way. They aren’t even learning anything, which in theory is the main purpose of even accepting an internship. And if these interns are only given in return the possibility of breaking into a notoriously exclusive industry, that’s not enough. Unpaid intern work has become a way for larger companies to get free labor in return for absolutely nothing but a faint glimmer of opportunity that may or may not come.
Apart from this simply not being a fair practice, unpaid internships also tend to discriminate against college students in lower income brackets. Many students on financial aid need to make money over the summer in order to fulfill the student contribution portion of their aid awards. While unpaid internships might be great opportunities in and of themselves, they are often out of reach for students who have an obligation to make a few thousand dollars to support their own education. This creates a cycle where only the more affluent are able to accept positions such as these and thus add it to their resume, which in turn allows them to find jobs more easily after graduation than students who had to work retail at the local mall to make money instead.
Furthermore, most internships are located in a city. This, of course, means that many interns need to commute to work each morning and commute home each night. According to a Government Census, commuting into New York City from a 60 mile radius can cost anywhere from $150 to $250 per month, depending on the mode of transport. Interns are often set back around $600 for the whole summer just for getting to and from work. While it may be difficult for nonprofits and NGOs to pay interns a salary due to a lack of funds, they should at minimum pay enough to defray the cost of commuting — that would at least allow the student to work without losing money over the course of the summer.
Any intern who contributes to their employers should be paid a reasonable salary regardless of whether or not they are receiving skills or knowledge in return. In most case, even minimum wage would let lower income students to accept a job that they may normally have to pass up. They can fetch double-shot soy lattes with ease of mind — even if they never get that promised recommendation from Quentin Tarantino, at least they have a modest paycheck.
Shruthi Deivasigamani is a sophomore from Cresskill, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.