How Unpaid Internship Laws Can Help You
While there are many benefits to an unpaid internship, working for free can sometimes feel like exploitation.
But did you know that there are actual laws in place that keep companies from truly taking unfair advantage of their interns?
You should be aware of these laws when you apply for an internship so you can avoid companies that disregard unpaid internship laws, unfairly and illegally exploiting interns.
The US Department of Labor has developed criteria to help evaluate whether a position meets unpaid internship laws. I’ve broken down the most important points for you here. Ask yourself these 3 questions to help determine if your internship follows the law:
1. Are you getting real training?
This is the major aspect emphasized in multiple points of the unpaid internship laws. The point of an internship is to train you in your field of interest (and bulk up your college student resume while you’re at it!). In fact, the US Department of Labor goes so far as to specify that this training should be similar to what a student at a vocational school or academic educational institute would receive.
If you have a graphic design internship that promised you training in a particular graphic design program, your intern provider should follow through. Almost every internship will include some menial duties like answering phones – but you should be getting real hands-on training in your field as well.
2. Was the employer clear about the internship’s benefits?
One aspect of an unpaid internship is that interns are not automatically entitled to a job upon completion of their internship. Watch out for false promises from employers trying to lure you into an unpaid internship. It’s also essential that the employer and the intern both understand that the internship is unpaid from the start in order for an unpaid internship to be legal.
3. Is your internship a job in disguise?
A major point of the unpaid internship laws is that an internship should not be used to disguise a regular job. In other words, companies can’t liquidate a position and then just hire an unpaid intern to do the same job without pay. Beware of “intern mills,” where companies continually hire a rotation of interns for a single position that could just as well be a full-time (paying!) job.
The Bottom Line: Take Control of Your Internship
A recent New York Times article about the illegal exploitation of unpaid interns reports that the Labor Department is working on cracking down on internships not meeting the criteria of unpaid internship laws. Hopefully this means that the number of students exploited by illegal internships in the future will decrease.
The number of internships offered abroad and in the US is huge, however, and at the end of the day it’s up to you to verify that your unpaid internship is actually benefiting you.
If you feel your internship is beneficial, then go for it! Like I said, many unpaid internships are legitimate and are excellent learning opportunities. There are many things you could do to maximize the benefits of your internship that will help you make the most of it.
However, if you feel that your position does not meet the unpaid internship laws and isn’t doing anything for you personally or professionally, don’t be scared to speak up or simply walk away — and try to find something better.