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Are Unpaid Internships Illegal?

Did you get started in your career as an unpaid intern? According to labor officials, that may actually be free labor and therefore illegal:

“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” said Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the department’s wage and hour division.

Ms. Leppink said many employers failed to pay even though their internships did not comply with the six federal legal criteria that must be satisfied for internships to be unpaid. Among those criteria are that the internship should be similar to the training given in a vocational school or academic institution, that the intern does not displace regular paid workers and that the employer “derives no immediate advantage” from the intern’s activities — in other words, it’s largely a benevolent contribution to the intern.

Steve Greenhouse of the New York Times has more: Link (Photo credit: Matthew Cavanaugh/NY Times)

What do you think? Is it reasonable to expect businesses to pay for interns who have no experience? If no business will hire you because you have no experience - and you can't get any experience because no one will hire you, then isn't an unpaid internship a good way to solve the problem? (Disclosure: I worked as an unpaid lab intern for 2 years in college. It was actually quite competitive to get that position.)


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Never ever work for nothing. You get up in the morning, have to pay rail/bus fare to go to work anyway, the employer is having your time. Why work for an employer who values you so badly that they won't even pay the minimum wage. You are laying yourself open to all sorts of abuse from bad employers who treat low-paid workers like whipping posts anyway. It's a bad deal and only rich kids can afford to work for nothing anyway.
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Angry Parent,

Thank you. Your words helped me feel a bit better. I come from a poor family. I grew up living in poverty my whole life, and was told time and time again, that being smart, getting good grades, and being talented would take me places. I graduated from a top art school for video game design in May, and was immediately selected to interview for a major film company opening up due to the film incentive being offered. After viewing my work, I was told "We could definitely use you!!". Then promptly offered 0$. A friend of mine, who had experience working for a crappy game company out of someone's basement, who had comparable skill as I, was offered 65,000,000$. I was insulted. As soon as I mentioned I was hoping for a paid internship, just so I could afford gas, I was shown the door. And these monsters are getting money from the film incentives! Yet they can't pay me so much as a dime! It really hurts inside to know I graduated with honors, spent every cent I made and took out loans to pursue my dream in a field I was great at, just to be told I'm worth nothing only because I don't have a longer resume. Unpaid internships like this are illegal, but who do you contact to enforce that?? I've looked, and I can't find any information on how to report these slime balls. Unless you're currently or previously employed with them, you don't even have grounds to complain. But who would accept such a position if they weren't okay with it?? Maybe that's why it's so prevalent...
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As a parent who has paid top dollar for both of my daughters to attend two of the most prestigious art schools in the country, in two of the most expensive cities in the country, the internships they have worked at, while providing some work experience in their field, amounts to nothing more than slave labor. If these schools, that claim their degrees will provide them with the education and skills needed to enter the workforce, then why should they allow their students to accept no monetary gain in return? Schools should provide their students with job fairs, and a list of companies who value the education and talent that these young adults supply. It may not have to be minimum wage, but how about lunch? how about a rest break?

If these companies are for profit, then they should be required by law to paid some kind of stipend. The fashion world has to be the worst offender of all. One daughter worked in the field after graduating, with the idea that the internship in her field would provide her with additional necessary skills needed to advance, Instead she was treated like a basic hostage. Long hours, harassing tones, no breaks, late and long hours, that in the end provided her with nothing more than clerk skills. These companies steal the initiative, talent and ideas of our young people, for no pay.

Kids need to stand up and demand compensation. Any respectable company that is worth working for is one which is willing to pay for the ideas, information and hard work that these students provide.

I would have been better giving my children the 100k a year that it has cost me, let them stay home and learn how to invest that money, and ten years down the road they would be able to start their own companies.

Don't allow yourself to be taken advantage of! Demand pay for the work you do! Complain to your school administration to provide you with a list of companies who are willing to compensate you for your ideas and hard work. NY has to be the WORST offender in this area.
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This is nepotism at work, plain and simple. Many of the desirable jobs require that you first gain experience in an unpaid internship, which is obviously impossible for the working class (no matter how skilled they may be).

I currently hold an enviable position at a company that I had to fight my way into, and I can't tell you how many dip-shit rich kids with virtually no redeeming value I've seen skate right in because their parents could afford to pay their rent and bills for them well into their 20s.

It's not at all fair, but it is actually quite legal so long as it's part of a vaguely defined "for credit" program.
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It's unfair to recent grads and people who are trying to get experience in a field. How can you compete when someone's giving their services away for free?

For the companies, why should they buy the cow when they can get the milk for free?
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