Most Shared

Justice

Should interns be paid?

By Kate HarvestonAugust 8, 2017

Intern
Intern Getty

If you’ve ever searched for an internship, you know how rare it is to find one that’s paid. Usually, the associated advertisements focus on how potential interns will benefit by working as part of the team at a top company, learning skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives and networking with notable people. 

However, some question the legitimacy of the gains from unpaid internships. Are students getting enough out of their internships if their bosses just choose to use them as secretaries and coffee runners? And how do unpaid internships contribute to income inequality? Let’s examine a few aspects to keep in mind when considering whether or not interns should be paid.

Unpaid internships tolerated in ultra-competitive industries

A person who is trying to get his or her foot in the door and break into the entertainment industry or another extremely competitive field may reason that unpaid internships are not only common but also expected. That individual might think, “If I can just learn how things work at X Company, I’ll have something great to put on my resume, and I might even get a job out of the experience. Considering those advantages, I’ll figure out a way to get by without pay.”

There’s also the problematic reality that if a potential intern is unwilling to work for no pay, he or she can feel certain that dozens or even hundreds of other hopefuls would surely work hard without getting paid. Then, there’s the assumption that if a person doesn’t seize the chance to grab an unpaid internship, he or she might be completely out of luck since internships are so scarce and people are always willing to work for free.

Legal specifications to keep in mind

The stereotypical intern is someone dashing around from dawn until dusk, eagerly making copies and filling empty coffee cups for superiors. Although that dedicated individual might be making a strong impression regarding personal work ethic, those types of activities don’t transfer to become future job skills. Some companies have taken bold stances and chosen to pay their interns, recognizing that they are assets to the team.

However, there have been instances where interns fulfilled duties that ended up being integral to a project’s success, and they didn’t receive a dime for their efforts. Many people do not realize that unpaid internships can result in lawsuits related to the Fair Labor Standards Act. There were two prolific cases associated with interns at Gawker and Fox Searchlight Pictures. Both argued because their duties were so integral to operations, they deserved payment.

According to legal rulings, unpaid internships have to occur in a primarily educational environment that benefits the intern. Also, the employer cannot take advantage of an intern and make that person do things that would necessitate a paid staff member receiving income for the work. 

Unpaid internships highlight income inequality

People have also argued strongly that unpaid internships are luxuries for the economically fortunate. That line of thought makes sense, especially considering that many internships occur during the summer. That’s a time when people who are not financially stable can’t even consider applying for internships because they have to use that coursework-free season to make money that’ll sustain them through upcoming semesters. 

It raises the question of whether employers might be unintentionally preventing ideal candidates from applying for an internship because an unpaid option isn’t financially realistic. Employers who offer paid internships bring a welcome element of equal opportunity to the internship candidate pool. 

What must happen to help interns who take unpaid internships?

Indeed, paying interns or making them work for free is a decision that’s up to employers. If they choose the latter, they must break the stereotype and reward worthy interns by letting them do things that’ll genuinely benefit them in their future careers. 

Of course, it would be feasible to assign interesting activities based on a person’s prior performance. If someone characteristically shows up late and displays an obviously bored attitude while interning at a company, he or she would arguably not be a prime candidate for exciting and demanding responsibilities. On the other hand, when an intern manages time well, is inquisitive and otherwise meets or exceeds expectations, then the stage is set for bigger and greater things.

Also, employers need to consider that payment could be an incentive that helps them find the best, most highly motivated interns. If that happens, they might reduce hiring costs down the line because they can bring proven interns on board instead of having to dive blindly into the job market.

Hopefully, the influx of legal cases taken against companies that didn’t pay interns for doing valuable work might inspire a change. Until then, it’s up to interns to be assertive if they’re continually only given menial duties during an internship. As long as they’re performing well at a level that is at least as good as their peers, they can build a strong case that if payment is out of the question, they need to get educational ways to spend their time.