The guidelines on paying summer interns are anything but clear
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In just about every professional field, summer is intern season -- employers from banks to magazines to police departments have access to swarms of eager college students who don't ask for much in the way of a paycheck.
Government regulations on when an intern can go unpaid, however, aren't always clearly defined. Some employers could find themselves unwittingly violating federal labor law, especially with more interns swarming to businesses to fill their resumes in the face of a daunting job market. A 2008 survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers suggested that, as of the previous year, 50 percent of graduates had participated in at least one internship.
Twenty years ago, that number was at 17 percent.
"I think people are more lenient and accepting of unpaid internships now," said Trisha Hyatt, program manager at the Regional Internship Center of Southwestern Pennsylvania, on the South Side.
Students who have gone through her program have benefited from their unpaid positions, saying experience and connections are ultimately more important than pay during college.
University administrators often expect real-world experience and hands-on learning for students receiving academic credit for their work, said Gayle Marco, associate dean of Robert Morris University's business school and intern director.
"Maybe they're working on the website, working with tweets, working with database management. These guys do important stuff," Ms. Marco said. "If they're gonna go there and answer the phones and file papers, I don't let them go there."
She said many of her students took up unpaid positions demanding the same treatment as full-time employees:
"[They] said, 'I want to do what everyone else is doing. If everyone works a 12-hour day, I want to work 12 hours.' "
Employers often see enthusiastic students willing to work for free as a godsend. In fields where unpaid jobs are common -- including communications, nonprofit work and cultural institutions -- some also might not realize the guidelines for hiring them.
While no federal or state law specifically deals with summer internships, the U.S. Department of Labor uses the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act to cleave unpaid students from those who are clearly employed.
The act broadly defines employment as to "suffer or permit to work," meaning anyone performing work for a business must be compensated. A 2010 fact sheet released by the labor department offered employers general rules to follow -- and some may be surprised at how little may legally qualify to go unpaid.
The stipulations, which the department says are not written as law, include directions that interns do not displace or serve the same function as employees.
"If the interns are engaged in the operations of the employer or are performing productive work ... then the fact that they may be receiving some benefits in the form of a new skill or improved work habits will not exclude them," the release says.
"If an employer uses interns as substitutes for regular workers or to augment its existing workforce, [these] interns should be paid at least the minimum wage."
It may be difficult, however, for employers to delineate productive work from on-the-job education.
"I'm sure they do think, 'As long as the person agrees, I'm not cheating them,'" said Jane Volk, an attorney with the Meyer, Unkovic and Scott firm in Downtown.
"Ideally, it's more of a student-teacher situation. The benefit really has to flow to the intern," Ms. Volk said.
She said she hasn't seen many unpaid interns question their legal employment status, in part because they feel they know what they're getting into before taking up positions.
And when the students begin working, managers dealing with already murky regulations are expected to keep them from performing employees' duties.
"You mentor them, but there's a lot of things that, unless you're there 24 hours a day, you're not going to see," Ms. Marco said.
Joe Pass, a labor attorney with Jubelirer, Pass and Intrieri, Downtown, said his firm hires interns, and noted it's difficult to follow the rules if they're interpreted as forbidding all productive work by the interns.
"If they're going to get any benefit out of the program, other than a shadow ... they have to have some participation," Mr. Pass said. "Where do you draw the distinction?"
With internships becoming more popular, and following a series of high-profile cases in which students performed menial labor without pay, some labor attorneys say rules could be clarified in the next few years.
"This is a such a new issue, there aren't a lot of cases yet. It's a little like reading tea leaves," said Mike Healey, a partner at the Healey and Hornack firm in Downtown.
"These [rulings] are just going to start to come down now."
Mr. Healey said court decisions are likely to turn on whether the intern is being compensated -- with compensation including school credit.
"If the unpaid internship's not attached to a degree program, they've got to be paying people for the work," he said.
Ms. Volk said that, until laws are clarified, intern misuse will likely be rife.
"It's an issue every summer," she said. "But no one can waive an obligation to receive wages for work. That's the American way."
First Published July 4, 2011 12:00 am