The Widdershins

Remain Calm, etc: Corporate “Volunteers”

Posted on: September 12, 2013

Good Thursday, Widdershins.

We’ve discussed the war/potential war/targeted, surgical strike/diplomatic solutions with the Syrian situation for much of this week.  Today, I propose that we discuss the ever-growing war on the middle class , specifically unpaid internships.

Colleges and universities have farmed out their students for years.  One might say that nurses and medical students have a multi-year working internship.  Educational majors do student preceptorships and student teaching.  These are time-honored hands-on educational methods for skills that cannot be acquired much of any other way.   (Hint:  Stay out of teaching hospitals in July and August.  Everyone is either brand new or just moved up to a new level of incomplete competence.)  For the past decade or so, students of all stripes have been sent out into the world to perform free labor while paying large chunks of change to their alma mater.

Now, I’m not saying that this is entirely bad.  A theater, design, architectural, or engineering student could really be enriched by such an experience.  As little as I know of business, I feel certain that many students could learn a great deal from corporate America.  I’ve read some narratives written by students who were thrilled with their experience, and would do it all again in a New York minute, but there is another side to this internship thing.

Some students found the whole thing less than enriching.  One woman spent a semester at a famous design house boxing and mailing sample clothing.   One ran for coffee and delivered paperwork.  Another worked for a corporation who had her sanitizing door handles for fear of spreading Swine Flu.  Sadly, there are many instances of students paying megabucks to perform manual, repetitive tasks for a famous employer.  Sadder still, many states do not even require schools to give credits for this work.

Back in 2010, The New York Times published an article which questioned the legality of unpaid internships.  This particular piece addresses student internships, and there are some salient facts contained within.  Three years ago, people were beginning to take notice of the fact that unpaid internships were multiplying like rabbits, and not all were what they seemed to be.  I’ll let you read the whole thing for yourself, but it discusses unpaid internships in light of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) vs. unpaid training, but one thing is abundantly clear: the Fair Labor Standards Act is pretty specific insofar as what constitutes the legal basis of an unpaid internship:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) has developed the six factors below to evaluate whether a worker is a trainee or an employee for purposes of the FLSA:

1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction;

2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees;

3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;

4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the
activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually
be impeded;

5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training
period; and
6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to
wages for the time spent in training.

(3) and (4) are the sticking points here.  You have to wonder if the number of unpaid internships have doubled and even tripled in some companies if said companies are actually deriving no benefit from the student’s labors.  Maybe it’s me, but I’m having trouble suspending a sufficient amount of disbelief to buy into the theory that Corporate America just wants to be certain that people enjoy a well-rounded experience that will prepare them for gainful employment.

A few states began looking into unpaid internships some years ago, and the federal government in also involved.  The Wage and Hours department head stated flatly that she sees few possibilities for for-profit corporations to offer unpaid internships and still comply with the law.  The department has taken action in a number of instances, but many students are reluctant to complain for fear of being blackballed from their chosen field.

Ironically, unpaid internships abound in both Congress and the White House.  I read that only 1/3 of interns in federal government jobs receive even so much as a stipend.   I would venture to guess that the situation in state and local governments is similar, although I can’t find any reasonable source that confirms my suspicions.  At any rate, some interns are speaking up and taking action.  While researching this post, I came upon the Unpaid Interns Lawsuit Website, which cites actions against Condé Nash, Hearst, Fox Searchlight and NBCUniversal.

Now a new problem has emerged. , A number of graduates, unable to land a job, have opted for yet another round of unpaid internships in an attempt to get a foot in the door, or gain some credible experience to post on a resume.  The practice has become so widespread that you have to wonder if there is such a thing as an entry-level position anymore.  Sadly, very few such internships ever seem to progress to a paid position.  Even experienced but displaced workers are sometimes finding themselves in unpaid positions, hoping against hope that something will develop.   More and more, a pattern of worker exploitation seems to be developing.

The worst part of the whole mess is that unpaid interns are not employees, and are therefore exempt from Workman’s Compensation in the event of injury.  There is also no mechanism to deal with on-the-job sexual harassment, as again, the intern is not an employee.  Sadly, the lot of the unpaid intern is below the standard set for indentured workers, who at least gained something tangible for their labors.

This is an open thread.


15 Responses to "Remain Calm, etc: Corporate “Volunteers”"

The ones that we had in the fed. govt offices where I worked were usually referred to as “summer hires” or if outside of summer, the VA Regional Office would hire some work study students from the local schools. The ones at VA usually worked in files (yep those infamous thick red-rope folders) and would pull the files to be worked on with claims processing, or drop-file mail or things like that.

Were they actually compensated?

chat@2: Yes they were. The summer hires were usually kids from the public school system over 16 or whatever the min. age is and I believe they paid them a bit over the minimum wage. The “work study” kids were from the local colleges/universities working there as part of their fin. aid packages. It was probably that they couldn’t find something for them on campus. Whatever they were paid was part of their fin. aid from their schools. VA just kept track of the hours worked and provided that info to the schools.

From what I’ve been reading, your summer hires were, by comparison, rolling in dough.

As with anything, over the years what was once a wonderful experience has been transformed into indentured servitude especially in the celeb-get-rich-quick-industries.

I had an internship in the Senate. Of course, that was so many years ago I rode a dinosaur to work. I was paid. I was not a sex kitten for some tawdry old geezer. It was a great experience. I fear that kind of good experience is few and far between these days.

chat said: From what I’ve been reading, your summer hires were, by comparison, rolling in dough.

Good grief!

Prolix said: I had an internship in the Senate. Of course, that was so many years ago I rode a dinosaur to work

Oh! In biblical times! Now prolix, were you an intern or a page? I think it’s the pages that the old geezers wanted for sex toys.

Well, I think I may give the Tulane/La. Tech game a watch. Let’s see if Joe Montana’s kid is really any good.

TCU/TT is a good game thus far/.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Tulane/La Tech. so far. Saw Broadway Joe and Terry Bradshaw there in the stadium.

Whoa! Prolix worked in the Senate?!? Very cool.

California is raising minimum wage: from $8 to 9 next year, and then from 9 to 10.

Congrats to Cali!

I wish they could get the congress critters to raise the national min. wage. The rethugs in Congress gripe and complain about how many jobs it will cost or be lost if the min. wage is raised. They never raise it the entire amount at one time. Normally it’s a certain amt. one time and then the next year the next increment comes in. They always want to say it’s “kids” who are working the min. wage jobs, but they obviously haven’t been to a fast food joint in the last few years.

Fredster, did you see Stewart tonite? They did a great piece on evil Monsanto.

@socal: Oh yes I did! It was awsome!

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