Worth of unpaid internships challenged in court

Angela Braza

Unpaid internships are common in the job market, but a recent lawsuit targeting unpaid labor has some college students questioning the worth of these job opportunities.

Because many students are already burdened with rising tuition costs and other educational expenses, the appeal of unpaid internships is not very high, said communications major Ally Jones, 24.

“I’ve had unpaid internships in the past, and I hated them,” she said. “I worked so hard for so little in return.”

Two former interns who worked for free filed a lawsuit suit against Fox Searchlight Pictures, alleging their work on the film “Black Swan” violated federal labor laws.

The Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor states the following requirements that allow interns to work without compensation:

For an unpaid internship to be legal, it must provide training similar to what would be given in an education environment; benefit the intern; it must not use an intern to displace regular employees; it must not immediately benefit the employer; the intern is not entitled to a job at the end of their work; and it is understood by all parties that the intern will not be paid.

Alex Footman and Eric Glatt, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, claim they did not receive the educational experience required in order to exempt employers from paying interns.

In an interview with Southern California Public Radio, Glatt said he believed all internships should be paid, and that he was speaking out on behalf of all interns who have suffered similarly.

But most students’ internship experiences are different, said Shannon Johnson, associate director for the College of Business and Economics Internship Program.

“Every intern has to receive some sort of compensation, and many companies offer academic credit,” she said. “Otherwise, it would be an illegal use of free labor.”

Most companies are beginning to require students enroll at colleges and universities to receive academic credit to qualify for their internships, she added.

Lauren Berger, CEO of Intern Queen Inc., a website designed to help college students find various internships based on their interests, said the decision to pay interns is based on company policy, tradition and budget.

The true appeal of an unpaid internship lies in the learning experiences it can offer, she added.

“I know that internships are worth it — paid or unpaid,” Berger said in an email. “You are gaining the most valuable experience for your future. When you go to an interview after college, the first question an employer will ask is, ‘Where did you intern?’ and you need to be able to answer that question.”

Business law major Tracy Trieu, 20, agreed.

“Getting paid for your work is always a plus, but it’s more important to gain the real-world experiences that internships provide,” Trieu said.

Employers searching for prospective candidates will look to see whether the candidate acquired professional skills applicable to the job for which they are applying, Johnson said.

“Paid or unpaid, an internship looks good on a resume,” Trieu said. “It provides students more leverage in the job market once they graduate.”