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Internships: Valuable Experience or Illegal Exploitation?

The high unemployment rate, particularly for 18—25-year-olds, has led to an explosion of internships. Although they vary, most internships are temporary employment and the intern is promised “experience” rather than compensation. In fact, your Denver Personal Injury Attorney discovered that half of the college internships are unpaid. Internships presented by universities from outside employers often include academic credit in lieu of payment. With so many college students and graduates looking for work, an unpaid internship in their field of study that offers experience and connections can be a good alternative to unemployment or underemployment.

That would be true if the internship did in fact offer experience and connections. But as the interns on the set of the movie “Black Swan” discovered, they were not learning about the industry; they were fetching coffee, doing personal errands, and functioning as personal assistants. The interns sued Fox Searchlight Productions and won the right to pursue their claim as a class-action lawsuit in 2013. In the decision allowing the case to proceed, the Judge specifically referred to the criteria set forth by the Department of Labor (DOL) regarding internships:

  1. The internship must provide training similar to that in an educational
  2. The internship must be for the benefit of the intern
  3. The intern cannot displace regular employees
  4. The employer must not derive any immediate advantage from the internship
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the end of the internship
  6.  The employer and intern both understand that the internship does not include
    any wages.

The Fox Searchlight decision led to suits against Conde Nast, MSNBC and Gawker, to name a few. Some companies have eliminated their internship programs, and some colleges have cut back on internships for academic credit. But your Denver Personal Injury Attorney points out that decreasing the number of internships available is not necessarily the only way to respond to the enforcement of the DOL criteria. For example, New York University’s Career Center is tightening the criteria on the internships it will present to students on campus. NYU now requires that listing employers read and comply with school and federal internship regulations. At NY Creative Interns, a Meet-up group for interns and recent grads, there has been a 500% increase in paid internships. And finally, an easy fix to existing internships is to pay the intern minimum wage, and put the relationship between the employer and the intern in writing, carefully outlining the expectations of both parties. Maintaining an arbitration agreement would be helpful as well.

Today’s high unemployment rate provided a fertile environment for exploiting young adults eager to get a foothold in their careers. Fortunately, enough attention has been focused on the “permanent intern underclass” that internships must actually be internships, rather than unpaid labor. If you have worked as an intern, or want to pursue an internship, and need assistance to determine if the terms are legal and/or if you are owed any back wages, contact Jordan Levine, your Denver Personal Injury Attorney at Levine Law today for a consultation.

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