Intern Life: What's Legal?

Thursday, August 02, 2012

copier machine (derekbruff/flickr)

Steven Greenhouse, New York Times labor and workplace correspondent and author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, kicks off the weekly series on life as an intern and the role of internships in our economy. Today's topic: What's legal and what's not, and what rights interns have.


Steven Greenhouse

Comments [30]

conde nast and time.

unpaid conde nast have replaced entry level workers.

time life interns, paid minimum wage, lay out magazines for one year, and if their work is brilliant, are taken on as "consultants."

these are the industry leaders.

Aug. 03 2012 11:23 PM
Matt from NYC

Belinda--reasonable (if conventional) advice, but I disagree. The interns are OWED at least minimum wage. Or at least they should be. Getting paid for doing work, what a concept.

Aug. 02 2012 12:14 PM
Michele Aquino from White Plains, NY

As with all things, there are so many different experiences out there to report on! I went to Drexel University and participated in the "COOP" program, in which I worked full time and was paid. Perhaps b/c I am proactive, I felt like my internship/coop was very enriching, helped me network, and after graduating I had 1.5 years of full time work experience.

Now, my manager has given me the opportunity to manage an intern. He was only with me for 8 weeks, but we made sure he was fully trained as if he was a typical, paid, lab assistant. Then, I attempted to assign him projects to collect data, analyze data, report results, and practice technical writing. However, I try not to assign work that falls under what I consider "keeping the lights on" tasks--in other words, I try to handle all the day to day tasks that we would want a regular employee to do so that the intern, although working on projects that we do want completed, is primarily working on learning projects.

I can certainly see how there are issues at this economic juncture because firms are waiting as long as they can before hiring new people! I think interns should always be supported somehow financially though, perhaps at least to cover basic living expenses.

Great topic.

Aug. 02 2012 11:28 AM
intern in ny from new york

I'm glad that this topic is finally brought to everyones attention. I myself have so much experience and stories regarding internships. First internship I had when I was attending undergrad and I was receiving credit for it, but the way it was worked out was as long as I got great feedback from my supervisors at the internship the money that was paid for the "internship course" would then be used towards my tuition. I did get a job through my internship once I was finished with Undergrad, but later due to budget cutbacks was laid off as I was the employee who had been there the shortest amount of time. Right after I lost my job I was able to take upon an internship at a busy art service company and as the work load kept growing and growing (I was a great worker and they wanted to take advantage), I demanded I get paid and get hired because what I do is not Internship it's free work. They ended hiring me as freelance worker, but after refusing to pay me fully for hours that I had put in and refusing to have a written contract with me I left the place. Then still having a trouble finding job, I took upon another internship in a very large media company. I immediately realized that the way this company functions is based on many, many interns, including myself, doing work that other paid employers are doing. I was a great worker and there was some talks from my supervisor about a position opening in the department and that I would be considered as long as I'm interested. Of course I was, I was in need to get a job! Then after couple of weeks, after I noticed an online posting for the same position I was offered, I approached my supervisor and was told that they made a decision that I wasn't qualified enough, even though I had done the job for already three months without getting paid, yet they said they would consider me for the next opening and that would mean they would expect me to do the same work load with the same outstanding work ethic without getting paid!!! So of course I quit again and I am still looking for a job, yet I refuse to participate in any internships as I see at this point internships as free work force and not fair to young ambitious people. There are really no one to turn to that could help Interns stand up for their rights, I have considered this for myself to start an organization and reach out to young people and inform them about their rights as Interns as well as warn them from awful companies who have no interest to hire you but just to use you as free work force.

Aug. 02 2012 11:19 AM
Belinda from White Plains

To all potential interns out there - be smart and strategic. An internship can eventually land you a “good job” job. Once you get in, be proactive, be enthusiastic, be interesting, and, and most importantly, do not act as if something is owed to you, or worse, as if a task is beneath you.
Be respectful with EVERYBODY and engage and get to know as many people as you can. One of these people (and you never know who) will someday make a phone call on your behalf. Or knows someone who knows someone who can help you whether it’s a year from now or 10 years from now. Stay ahead of the pack, be humbled and be graceful.

Aug. 02 2012 11:12 AM
Barbara Anello from Manhattan

Thank you so much for raising this topic. Internships are entirely a mechanism for corporations to exploit workers. I graduated college in the mid-70's; I had high school jobs, worked during college years and got jobs with no trouble as soon as I graduated -- with museums and art galleries (including MoMA) in Manhattan. Not possible today. Corporations, institutions and employers started exploiting internships during the late 1980s when the economy was high enough to support volunteerism. At the same time, outsourcing of manufacturing and service jobs undermined the American worker, while exploiting cheap labour abroad. Now the US is at the opposite side of the pendulum; it's time to protect workers, bring paying jobs back and jump-start the economy. I have spent most of the past 25 years working in Southeast Asia and Africa, so I've watched the economic and labour market changes from several perspectives. Great topic: please do bring this issue to the legal system. Create jobs, dismantle the internship system. Corporations, non-profits, organizations and universities should be forced to stop promoting internships.

Aug. 02 2012 11:11 AM
Lauren from Philadelphia

I'm a recent college grad who had an unpaid internship with a small design firm. I was doing work that the principals directly billed the client for, such as drawing floor plans or researching furniture. It made me uncomfortable but I knew I needed experience. The "internship" was not affiliated with any college and was not structured around learning or technical skills.

I came into work one day and found they had hired a whole new batch of interns; that day alone there were 7 others. I was disturbed because there are only 5 full-time employees, including the 2 owners. How is this legal?? Shouldn't there be some kind of ratio? How can I report these people? They were taking advantage of me and are now taking advantage of countless others.

Aug. 02 2012 11:10 AM

In my previous job for a small business, nobody wanted to deliver toilet paper to the bathrooms - lest someone "look down on them". The solution - ONLY department MANAGERS were allowed this commendable position.

AND here's a common workplace joke:

On Smith's first day at the workplace his manager told him to sweep the floor. Smith vociferously complained, "But I Have a College Degree!!!!!"

The manager, now worried that he had hired an unskilled worker, called on a well trained and senior employee, "Jones will you please show Smith how to use a broom?"

.....there's plenty of "little things" to do around the workplace and home and SOMEONE'S gotta' do them. The best way to get ahead anywhere is to say "I've finished the task you've given me. Do you have anything else I can do for you?"

Aug. 02 2012 11:10 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn


Your argument is completely irrational with regard to what I said. I said that people can't afford to pay for transportation, lunch, etc., and provide free labor for companies. You are very fortunate that you can afford to do this.

I also said that internships are voluntary, and one of the callers said that she was in internship for which she was receiving school credit in exchange for her work, but she felt that she was not getting anything out of it and didn't like the nature of the program, so she quit. Voila.

I also support what Mr. Greenhouse was saying about the legality of internships and what makes them legal as opposed to paying positions. You may, in fact, want to check out the program you're in to find out whether they should actually be paying you for what you do. It certainly sounds like it to me.

There is, as supported by Mr. Greenhouse, a HUGE difference between what constitutes an "internship" as opposed to what constitutes "slave labor." An internship is supposed to provide the intern with an education; it is not meant to provide an employer with free labor.

I suggest you re-evaluate your "internship" and see if you should be getting paid.

Aug. 02 2012 11:09 AM
Matt from NYC

Truth & Beauty--sure it's voluntary. However, beyond individual choices, a institutional critique is perfectly legit. There's something wrong with a system that rewards only those privileged enough to be able to afford unpaid internships.

Interns are workers--they should be paid at least minimum wage--period! The law needs to change.

Aug. 02 2012 11:07 AM
Eric Glatt

Anyone interested in upending this unethical practice, feel free to check out:

Aug. 02 2012 11:02 AM
West Village

Having an intern in my company took more time spent on the intern to teach. It was time consuming to teach anything and not make any mistake. If I trained him or him, they go back to school once they learned. It was a waist on my side but I am pretty sure my interns learned a lot about the business and gained at the end.

Aug. 02 2012 11:00 AM

I think it likely depends on college major or experience. I'm a student going for B.S. of Computer and Systems Engineering and a B.S. of Computer Science. I'm currently doing my first internship at a major Fortune 500 company and I'm doing REAL work. I'm writing and maintaining production and mission-critical systems for other employees. I am, however, getting paid. Although I feel I'm not making enough for my personal experience and ability I'm quite pleased with the experience I'm receiving and the people I'm working with.

Perhaps if you don't have the same practical experience and ability it is harder for companies to justify the added expense of a paid intern.

Aug. 02 2012 10:58 AM
Karl Marx from Manhattan

Let me get this straight... a student PAYS thousands of dollars to provide FREE labour to Business owners taht have the wealth that a student is dreaming of ...?

ONly in the USA would this kind of BS have some one to argue FOR it

Aug. 02 2012 10:57 AM

I work in a field that thrives on student (and intern) labor. A natural science. We pay student interns 400 bucks a month for their part time work. When we have students that are doing official research with us for a thesis (aka credit), they technically aren't allowed to be paid for the work, but we usually find a work around to pay them (again around 400/month) for some other tangential work. And in this situation they are generally not even doing very much for us. At the least, they aren't giving more to us than they are taking away (we could do what they do faster without them). But it's good we pay them.

It's despicable that a company would make an intern do something useful, something which is a gainful labor, and not pay them. Utterly despicable.

Aug. 02 2012 10:54 AM
Caroline from Inwood

What does it matter if it's "real work" or not?

Is cleaning or fetching things and running errands not work, not doing a task for someone who benefits, whether by not having to hire a cleaner or by feeling so powerful and well served that s/he doesn't have to run errands?

Is it not a system where we pay people in (false) hope and honor instead of wages? Doesn't it remain unfair to those who have to pay their own bills, who can't live on credit or ad dependents and have to work for money and not honor? Doesn't it still mask this need to earn a living as an unwillingness to do what it takes or a lack of business and career smarts?

Aug. 02 2012 10:54 AM
Kevin from Manhattan

I interned at a Big 4 accounting firm. The internship was paid, but I was always jealous of my friends in their unpaid, more creative internships (PR, fashion, design, etc.) I couldn't afford to live in the city for an unpaid internship. If these other internships were paid, I might be in a much different career today.

Aug. 02 2012 10:53 AM
Becca from Bellmore

@ Truth & Beauty- if you think that it's as simple as just taking paid positions to advance one's career, you are a bit out of touch.

I'm an undergraduate student, rising senior, and this is my third summer (and soon to be my second winter) with an unpaid intern position at a medical center. This has frequently forced me to work 60-80 hour weeks, to apply for grants through my school, and to borrow a lot of money from my family- thankfully, things seem to be working out in my favor and they have repeatedly mentioned that they're "grooming" me for a full-time, salaried position beginning in May. The job hasn't always been glamorous- tons of data entry, some coffee runs, lots of file-fetching, but I've also been able to participate in patient clinics and contribute to and be published in research.
But my main point hereis that I've only been able to seize this opportunity because of my financial privilege. When I couldn't afford the gas to make the 75-mile commute to the clinic, I had parents who could fill my tank. I also don't pay all of my own bills, which allowed me to only work for money part time. Ultimately, unpaid internships are an incredible opportunity for students and the recently graduated, but they are only accessible to those who aren't fully supporting themselves/their families.

Aug. 02 2012 10:53 AM

Brian, can you comment on WNYC's policy? I had a girlfriend who seemed to be doing substantive work for some of your programs without receiving any compensation under the guise of an internship.

Aug. 02 2012 10:53 AM

Brian - tell us about WNYC Internship programs. What would your interns say - (that is if they felt they could be candid and anonymous).

Aug. 02 2012 10:52 AM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

I have to agree with Truth & Beauty; an internship is a voluntary arrangement meant to garner the intern experience or connections in a certain industry or company. The smartest thing for students to do is only do internships for college credit, as part of their education, and to not agree to work full-time, ever.

I think it's a good idea to have laws governing internships, but students need to learn how to be more proactive in their work lives. If you aren't getting anything out of the experience, quit. It's that simple. But at the same times, temper your expectations of what kind of work you will do: I have hired interns to do low level, entry level work that could be construed as "boring," but in return, they get to see how my business works, and if it's something they want to do in their own work futures.

Aug. 02 2012 10:52 AM
Nick from UWS

They have to get coffee!?!?!?! HEAVENS!!! Maybe interns should open their little baby eyes a little wider and start to learn that working in ANY business has a lot to do with helping out, being team player, and doing a lot of grunt work. The people who really get somewhere are the people who are willing to mop floors or get coffee or work in a mailroom in order to absorb the business they are working in. What the hell has happened to people?

Aug. 02 2012 10:52 AM
suzinne from Bronx

Truth and Beauty: You're partially correct. But some internships are REQUIRED as part of a college course.

Aug. 02 2012 10:51 AM
Robert from NYC

What's that Oscar? I don't get it. How are cat ashes related to this topic?

Aug. 02 2012 10:51 AM
Dan from NYC

What about non-profits?

Aug. 02 2012 10:51 AM
Cindy from Brooklyn

I own a small architectural practice specializing in affordable housing. We have always taken interns and in fact have an intern working for us right now. We would never think of asking an intern to work for free --even when they volunteer to do so. It's wrong and it's not fair. It's shameful that large fashion houses, law firms and other established and wealthy offices exploit young people in this way.

Aug. 02 2012 10:51 AM
suzinne from Bronx

I had the absolute displeasure of working as an intern in middle age. Talk about humiliation! Worked at Mt. Sinai and also Cabrini (now closed) in NYC. I learned absolutely ZERO and basically just answered phones and performed the most menial of tasks. Worth noting, my first day @ Cabrini, where I was filling in for the department secretary, someone wanted me to do payroll! Isn't that something you wouldn't want to screw up? They didn't even know me, why would they place that kind of trust in an intern? Besides the fact that I never had used the payroll program.

In this economy, interns are being exploited to the max by employers looking to save a dime. I find it beyond disgusting.

Aug. 02 2012 10:50 AM
oscar from ny

In the talmud i like..
1)take the first female born cat of a first female born cat and make it into ashes...take a little of this ashes and out some in your eyes and you will see demons all around, there should be hundreds or more..
2)take any ashes and scatterd them making a circle around your must maintain inside the circle...once your done circling ashes around your bed lay and go to the morning you will find that you can see somewhat of chicken foot prints made in the ashesss..
3)something about the virgins and how is like touching your eyeball..

Aug. 02 2012 10:42 AM
Jeff Pappas from Dumbo

As an Interior Artist and Designer I had a few interns thru Pratt , where I got my MFA. They got credits and when they helped me in my Studio it was for free but when I went to a job site I paid $ 10 hour cash, 10 years ago. I would consider myself a Micro business, so I think large Corps could at least match my wages...

Aug. 02 2012 10:36 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

There is one important thing to remember about internships: THEY ARE VOLUNTARY. If you see a job available and it states "unpaid internship" and you are looking for a paid position, don't take it. No one is holding a gun to your head. If you see a job available and it says "internship," you need to ask up front whether is is paid or unpaid. If it is unpaid, again, you need not take it.

If you accept an unpaid internship and you do not like what you are doing or what is going on in the office, you are free to quit.

For employers: it is best to be up front about whether your internship is paid or unpaid. Why would you hide such a thing as the intern will find out for certain on pay day? If you find that you are not getting any applicants because your internship is unpaid, you might consider paying a nominal fee, covering transportation costs, or providing some sort of incentive. In these days of a tough economy, it is unlikely that an intern would want to pay round trip transportation and pay for their own lunch, etc., while offering their services to you for free. Also, be advised that unless you state that you are offering an unpaid internship, you are basically hiring someone and not paying them, which is illegal. We do have federal and state labor laws and a minimum wage.

Aug. 02 2012 10:36 AM

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