The government’s ambiguity on unpaid internship

Unpaid internships — we’ve all had them, or at least heard about them. A staple of the college experience, most students spend one, two, sometimes three summers getting coffee, answering phones, making copies, putting together binders. Recent college graduates looking for careers in certain sectors, especially politics, journalism, and film even participate. Swatties are no exception. Many of you will probably start applying to these internships over winter break.

But have unpaid internships crossed an ethical line? Federal District Court Judge William H. Pauley III thinks so. In June, he ordered Fox Searchlight Pictures to back-pay two interns who worked to produce the motion picture “Black Swan,” as reported in the New York Times.

According to the ruling, the unpaid nature of the internship violated the guidelines set forth by the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Department of Labor lists the restrictions on unpaid internships on the department’s website. Unpaid internships cannot “displace regular employees” and the internship’s focus should be on “training” from which “the employer derives no immediate advantage.” The regulations, however, only apply to “for-profit” institutions, not the government.

A new campaign seeks to change the unpaid internship culture, starting in the nation’s capital. This summer, Mikey Franklin launched his Fair Pay Campaign to combat unpaid internships in Washington, many for federal organizations. The Fair Pay Campaign’s first target: the White House.The White House does not currently pay its interns.

I have gone through a couple of unpaid and paid internships myself, as have numerous friends of mine. While I believe the internships should have been paid for the work I was doing (it appears from the regulations I am right on this), I still question many of the claims made and approaches advocated by Franklin and others.

Franklin laments that by not paying interns, government agencies fail to provide access to individuals with a low socioeconomic status. The argument goes that since these people cannot afford to pay for housing and living expenses without a paycheck, positions in the federal government that could be open to them after an internship are not available.

While this argument is easy to sympathize with, it overlooks the reality of many such internships. Low-income students at elite schools like Harvard, Princeton, and Swarthmore can take advantage of established programs in place for internships to be funded through their college or university. These schools each offer between $4000 and $4500 for domestic internships for the summer, and even more for international adventures. Swarthmore also provides students the opportunity to receive free housing by staying with generous alumni in and around America’s largest cities. Some students take paid internships and opt to take the schools’ funding instead, since the school funding is higher.

As a result, unpaid internships are not necessarily inaccessible to low-income students—though it does depend on the school one attends. The federal government benefits from these generous university stipends by getting top students from top universities to learn about working for the government, essentially for free.

Another problem is the Fair Pay Campaign’s proposed tactics. Franklin and his group plan to advertise paid internships and encourage students to only apply to paid internship programs. While there is no problem with advertising these positions, Franklin’s goal is much greater: to force the government to pay its interns by driving up demand for paid positions that are not necessarily as beneficial to the interns as the unpaid ones.

Rather than solving the problem, this could just make the unpaid internships easier to get for students of a higher socioeconomic background. There is enough demand for unpaid positions now, and that is not likely to change. Why? Rebecca Gale writes in The Hill that “as long as an internship — paid or unpaid — facilitates a path to a potential White House or congressional job, the demand will continue. [As] long as people are willing to work for free, a cash-strapped Congress and executive branch aren’t likely to change the rules.”

If the Fair Campaign’s efforts are unlikely to force the government’s hand, are there other ways to reform the unpaid internship culture? One proposal the campaign never entertains is to reduce the minimum wage for internships. Currently, organizations have the option to either pay interns $0.00 per hour or $7.25+ per hour. There is no in between. Some organizations provide a stipend for expenses, but these are often small amounts and face ambiguous government regulations.

Many interns would much rather be paid below minimum wage than not be paid at all. Often, organizations cannot afford to pay interns the minimum wage. Lowering the minimum wage for interns would allow more internships to be paid, providing greater access to people of all classes. Any amount of money brings interns closer to covering expenses, which can be offset by getting part-time positions in restaurants, retail or other industries.

This is the approach advocates of paying interns should take. Give companies, nonprofits, and government institutions a choice to pay interns a smaller wage, so more of these opportunities can provide some pay. After all, something is better than nothing at all.