Employers plan to increase internship hires by 8.5 percent this year compared with last year, according to a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Estimates from the same organization reported in 2011 that a little less than half of interns are unpaid. Some experts and attorneys say that is exploitative and may be illegal.
The Fair Labor Standards Act stipulates six criteria employers must meet in order to use unpaid interns:
The internship must be similar to training.
It is for the benefit of the intern.
It does not displace regular positions.
It is not immediately advantageous to the employer.
It does not guarantee a job offer.
The employer and the intern operate under the mutual assumption of no pay.
Perhaps the broadest of these requirements is the idea that employers are not legally allowed to derive "immediate advantage[s]."
Government officials, employers, and lawyers see the wording in different lights.
"I interpret that literally," said Rachel Bien, a class-action attorney with Outten & Golden, a law firm based in New York City.
For the most part, she said, unpaid internships are not legal.
Outten & Golden has filed three pending lawsuits on behalf of unpaid interns against the media giants Fox Searchlight and Hearst Corp. and PBS' The Charlie Rose Show.
Even with the pending lawsuits, the U.S. Labor Department "rarely" receives complaints, said spokesman Sonia Melendez.
Outten & Golden says it hopes to win the suits, not only to obtain justice for the former interns but also to educate employers. "Most employers, once they come to understand the law and take a close look at their practices, will do what's necessary to bring themselves into conformance with the law," Ms. Bien said.
Katie Loehrke, a human resources expert and editor with J.J. Keller & Associates, a workplace compliance consulting firm based in Neenah, Wis., said the problem with unpaid internships is that they are misunderstood. She suggested employers pay interns minimum wage. Then, if the intern produces work that could be interpreted as advantageous to the employer, the employer is still in compliance.
Michael Crom, executive vice president and chief learning officer of Dale Carnegie Training in Perrysburg, said providing vital learning experiences to students is part of a company's obligation to give back to society. Mr. Crom said Dale Carnegie employs interns each year, paying them to be sure it complies with federal law. He said part of being sure that the internship is benefiting the intern is assigning them meaningful tasks and not "goferlike" jobs.
"[Employers] should look at this as a greater responsibility to the potential intern, that you're there to help them grow and not to take advantage of them," he said. "I happen to think the law is on target here."
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Anna Orso is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Anna Orso at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1969.