Students Must Scrutinize Potential Internships
Published: Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
Only a few months after Megan Easton started her unpaid internship at an event-planning firm in the spring, she began to dread going to work.
All she seemed to do all day was update spreadsheets. "It was all busy work," said Easton, a Bentley University senior majoring in marketing (This is not her real name, which she asked not be used).
"This one time my boss even asked me to get lunch for her because she said she had a meeting," Easton said. "My desk was in her office, and she didn't leave to go to the meeting. I was so annoyed."
It's not just annoying. It's against the Fair Labor Standards Act, a federal law that governs what an unpaid intern can be asked to do. The act says that internships have to benefit the intern, not the employer.
But while students and university career advisors say such violations occur, state and federal authorities say no one has ever filed a complaint, so they've never investigated.
"We don't know why people don't complain," said Ted Fitzgerald, spokesman for the regional office of the U.S. Department of Labor. "We don't know if it's going on and people aren't reporting it, or if there really isn't an issue. We just haven't received complaints, and without complaints there is no basis for investigations."
Interns, former interns, and career counselors, however, say there is an issue.
"Assuming that the employer hires the student in good faith, legally the student is getting more benefit than the employer. It doesn't always pan out that way," said Amy Donegan, associate director of undergraduate management advising at Boston College. "There are employers that do not pay that should. Legally they may be breaking the law, if someone really looked into it."
Retail brokerage firms, for example, assign interns to cold-call—or make unsolicited calls to—potential clients. "Is that a valuable experience?" Donegan said. "Depends on the student."
"I don't want to name names but we did have an event-management firm that seemed to rely solely on the help of unpaid interns. And I thought that that was unethical. Considering what the interns were doing, they really were running the company and the employer was profiting from it."
BC has cut ties with some employers for violating the standards, said Louis Gaglini, employer relations director at the University's career center.
The law says an internship has to be similar to "training that would be given in an educational environment" and cannot displace a paid employee.
"If an employer uses interns as substitutes for regular workers … these interns should be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over 40 in a work week," the standards say.
But students who try to complain face a bureaucratic runaround.
Calls for information about unpaid internships were transferred from the national office of the U.S. Department of Labor to the Wage and Hour Division. The Wage and Hour Division sent them on to Division of Enforcement Policy and Procedure, which said the rules were enforced at the state level.
No, they are not, said Alison Harris, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. Harris said the department does not have enforcement authority in the matter of internships, and referred calls to the Attorney General's Office.
There, a spokesman sent them back to the Boston district office of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, where an agent said she was not authorized to answer questions, which she referred to the agency's regional spokesman, Fitzgerald.
"We'd like to encourage people to report cases where they're not being paid minimum wage or aren't being compensated, or cases where perhaps they should have been paid," he said.
Half of American college students hold internships, and half of those are unpaid.
Donegan said students should scrutinize potential internships.
"If it is unpaid, they need to ask a lot of questions to be clear about what they will being doing specifically," she said. "If they get a sense that the employer hasn't thought about it, chances are the employer never will. And you'll show up and the employer will be unprepared and give you busy work."
This story was produced by students in Jon Marcus' Advanced Journalism class.