OPINION: Unpaid internships exploit college students

All interns deserve to be paid for their time and work. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/FLICKR/MARCO VERCH

Internships are often stepping stones into a college student’s future career. While they are a great tool, the problem arises when interns are not compensated for their time and work.

Interns deserve to be paid and not doing so is exploitative and unethical.

An unpaid internship must pass the “primary beneficiary test” to be legal, as stated by the U.S. Department of Labor.

This test contains a set of seven factors that examine the academic nature of the internship and whether the work of the intern complements or replaces a paid employee. These are used to determine whether the person qualifies as an employee or an intern.

While useful to some degree, the examination is subjective since several factors depend on things that cannot be quantified, such as the nature of the work and the extent of the understanding between the intern and employer that there will not be compensation. It does not guarantee all interns fair and ethical treatment.

The Department of Labor website even states that “no single factor is determinative” and it “depends on the unique circumstances of each case.”

This subjectivity gives companies the opportunity to find loopholes and exploit its interns.

Unpaid internships enable companies to get free labor while risking very little. For companies, the intern is just one off of a long list. But for the intern, the opportunity could be crucial in getting into their future career. 

This is especially true of large companies such as Bank of America, for which 1,500 interns worked during the summer of 2019, as stated in a 2019 Bank of America press release.

Many students are so eager to gain valuable experience they jump at the offer of an internship, paid or not. Employers often know this and are quick to take advantage of it.

“I took one unpaid internship in college because I felt I had to. I went hungry living off $1 boxes of pasta,” Lexi McMenamin, reporter and editor of Teen Vogue, said in a 2021 Tweet.

This is evidenced by the fact that over 40% of internships in 2019 were unpaid, as reported by the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

Interns do a lot of work, including clerical duties and administrative tasks. Most of the work completed all have one thing in common — they would otherwise be done by a paid employee. Companies have been able to get away with getting labor from interns in exchange for nothing more than experience and it needs to stop.

Unpaid internships have been so normalized that people often fail to consider the undue stress they put on the interns. College students already have to balance classes, extracurriculars and jobs to support themselves.

Some argue that internships are all about the experience. They say months of giving up time and energy are worth it to get a foot in the door.

In 2021, NFL reporter Jane Slater posted about an unpaid internship opportunity she was offering for broadcast journalism students. When met with backlash, she was shocked and didn’t understand why people didn’t see it as the valuable opportunity she believed it was.

“There’s a reason not everyone makes it in this business. I don’t have time for those of you who don’t understand grind,” Slater said in a 2021 tweet.

This is a very narrow and privileged point of view. In 2018, 43% of full-time college students were also employed, with 10% of those working 35 hours or more per week, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. These students don’t have time or money to spend on an unpaid internship, no matter how valuable the experience.

It’s time companies stop exploiting interns and pay them for their time and work.