Susannah Griffee, USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent9:58 a.m. EDT May 9, 2013
Would you ever work up to 40 hours a week for free?
That’s what many college students do. It’s called the unpaid internship.
New York University sophomore Christina Isnardi is publicly pushing back against the trend of unpaid internships by petitioning the NYU Wasserman Career Center to remove illegal unpaid internship postings on its job search website, CareerNet.
The idea came about when she and another NYU sophomore, Rachel Whitbeck, were discussing their unpaid internships.
“For me, it was through personal experience,” said Isnardi. “I took two unpaid internships advertised by the school, and both were exploitative on two different extremes. For one of these internships, I was literally performing my boss’ job for him and I was denied pay. For another internship, I found myself only performing menial tasks, such as pressing elevator buttons and going on coffee runs. For both internships, I was treated like an employee and did not receive compensation for my work.”
When Isnardi talked to Whitbeck about her experiences, she found that Whitbeck couldn’t even take those internships, because she couldn’t afford to work for free.
“We realized that the problems we faced could be partially fixed if the current labor laws set out by the U.S. Department of Labor under the Fair Labor Standards Act were enforced, and at least minimum wage was given to interns who were doing the work of employees,” said Isnardi.
The Fair Labor Standards Act sets forth the following six criteria for an unpaid internship to be legal:
1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
Although the Wasserman Career Center has been receptive to the petition, Isnardi said the center is hesitant to remove even illegal unpaid internships because it thinks it also will be removing opportunities for some students to break into their professional fields.
However, Isnardi cites a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers that shows that 36% of graduates received at least one job offer, compared with 37% of graduates who were unpaid interns and 60% of graduates who were paid interns. According to this survey, having an unpaid internship increases your likelihood of getting a job by only 1%.
So far, Isnardi has 1,000 signatures on her petition from NYU students.
However, she urges students to take the initiative to help solve the unpaid internship problem.
“First, students can fight illegal unpaid internships by simply not taking them. We must become aware of our rights as interns and recognize that we are perpetuating our own exploitation,” said Isnardi. “Another way is through lawsuits. There are millions of unpaid interns who can file lawsuits, and if enough interns seek justice, the system may be brought down. Finally, more pressure needs to be put on local, state, and federal governments to enforce the labor laws that they wrote into law.”