As the economy has tightened in the last two years, many companies have been looking for ways to save money, including decreasing their paid workforce by laying people off and/or cutting back their hours. In response, many of those same companies are increasing their unpaid workforce by bringing on more individuals for “internships.”
Traditionally, an internship has been a valuable tool to students and others looking to break into a particular field or career. Many internships are set up through schools and trade programs to assist both companies and potential employees with opportunities to evaluate each other. People accept internships for many reasons, including for experience, resume padding or just the desire to help and serve a greater purpose. However, one central characteristic of a true internship is that it is supposed to be an educational experience. Many of the abuses we are seeing in internship programs is because they are not truly educational and have little or no oversight.
Internships are usually divided into paid or unpaid positions and involve either “for-profit” companies or “not-for-profit” companies. If a person interns at a “for profit” company there are certain criteria under federal law that must be met for it to legally be considered an “unpaid” internship. Those criteria are:
The abuses we are seeing is where an intern is hired and is doing the exact same job that other paid employees are doing. In fact, many of them are separately assigned work and have minimum oversight. Similarly, if an intern is simply making coffee, running errands and cleaning all day, without receiving any educational experience, then the internship probably violates federal law and should be paid.
Because so many students are looking for future employment, they are often hesitant to speak up if they are being used for “free labor.” This makes them prime targets for abuse. Additionally, because many of the workplace harassment and discrimination laws only apply to “employees,” some courts have ruled that interns are not protected by these federal laws. This also leads to more mistreatment.
The rules for unpaid interns are less strict for non-profit entities, such as charities, since people are allowed to volunteer their work. Many great and rewarding experiences can come from internships. But the idea that an individual should be coerced into laboring, especially at the expense of displaced employees, is one that should have been abolished when this country outlawed indentured servitude. If you need more information on this subject please contact Roman Shaul at 800-898-2034 or by email at Roman.Shaul@beasleyallen.com.
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