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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Unpaid internships could likely be illegal

There are six little-known federal laws on the books regarding unpaid internships that, while often skirted by businesses hoping to increase profit margins, are essential for the protection of low-wage workers, the unemployed and young students eager to improve their resumes.

Various court cases have established that nonprofits are not absolved from these requirements, though they do get a bit more leeway because they can classify interns as volunteers, and providing college credit doesn’t get a company a free-pass, either. In other words, the UA and any company offering UA students an unpaid internship is bound in following these six laws.

These legal requirements are, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, that the internship must benefit the intern, not be tied to a job guarantee, be “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment,” “not displace regular employees” and not lead to any advantage or profit for the employer. This makes it incredibly difficult for any for-profit company to argue that its internships are legal, and in fact, the Economist argued last year that “most unpaid internships in the private sector in America look decidedly iffy.”

The university has doubled-down on its efforts to increase student involvement in non-classroom learning experiences. Various departments and schools have joined this push — for instance, those majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology and care, health and society must complete an internship in order to graduate.

These requirements can be profoundly beneficial by providing students with hands-on learning and valuable experience for their resumes. Plus, internships give students the best opportunities to decide whether or not their major is for them, said Celestino Fernandez, who heads the internship program for the School of Sociology. This is one of the most important aspects of the college experience.

Given the fact, though, that most internships at for-profit firms don’t satisfy the Department of Labor’s six-point test, it is likely that many internships completed by UA students are illegal. 

For instance, Kevin Harrington, an ecology and evolutionary biology senior, said that his internship was done under researchers who certainly derived advantage from his work. He said he did much of the same work for which graduate students received grants, wages and publication. Although he enjoyed the work and the resume boost that it afforded him, it is clear that a university lab benefited financially from his unpaid internship. His free work also arguably “[displaced] regular employees,” unemployed or underemployed natural science graduates who would be paid minimum wage for their lab tech work.

The UA is allowing — and in some majors, requiring — its students to take internships, and some of these clearly fall outside the Department of Labor’s stipulations. Internships at for-profit companies that are more common at, say, the Eller College of Management, are in even more danger of frequently skirting these laws.

This not only hurts students financially in the short-term, but it also hurts their job prospects in the future. A recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers reveals that students who took unpaid internships are no more likely than students who never did internships to receive job offers after college. Students who did paid internships, on the other hand, are almost twice as likely to receive job offers. Unpaid internships also depress post-graduation salaries. Students who did unpaid internships actually made less after college than those who didn’t do any internships at all. Clearly, unpaid internships are a joke to employers, except when they are providing them free labor.

It would behoove the UA to pay the interns it’s supposed to and to encourage paid internships over unpaid internships. Such a move would increase the average salary of its graduates, make the university more appealing and likely increase alumni donations. It’s time for the UA to follow the law and do the right thing for itself and its students.


Martin Forstrom is a senior studying sociology and Latin American studies. Follow him on Twitter.

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