Can you afford to work for free?

Story by Tia Runion

Internships offer exclusive access and real-world industry experience for college students and graduates, but sometimes unpaid internships aren’t practical, affordable, or legal.

In 2011, more than 1 million Americans worked as interns. Half of them were unpaid, according to an NPR report.

Often companies aren’t willing or able to pay for part-time employees, so they create positions for unpaid interns and push the boundaries of fair labor laws and workplace fairness with excessive work weeks and no compensation.

According to The New York TimesXuedan Wang worked at Harper’s Bazaar  for four months last year as an unpaid intern. She typically worked 40 hours a week, sometimes 55 hours.

Wang didn’t receive college credit because she graduated prior to attaining her position at the magazine.

She filed a lawsuit against the magazine’s publisher, Hearst Corporation, Feb. 2, citing fair labor law violations. Wang and her law firm have asked to make the case a class action suit.

She’s asking for minimum wage, back pay and overtime for the hours she worked with no compensation, according to Reuters.

The United States Labor Department developed a Test for Unpaid Interns with six criteria to determine whether internships act in accordance with The Fair Labor Standards Act.

The guidelines assert, “The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.” Further, interns shouldn’t displace regular employees — they should work under the supervision of existing staff. The work experience gained through interning should correspond with training provided in educational settings.

If an unpaid intern is able to earn college credit, then employers are abiding by the FLSA. However, if they aren’t able to earn college credit, then employers are expected to provide compensation.

“Even though it may be the environment you want to work in, an internship isn’t sorting papers and stapling all day,” said Patricia Jacobs, Belmont University director of career services.

Patricia Jacobs, Belmont University director of career services (Photo credit:

Internships benefit both the intern and the employer.  It’s a learning opportunity for students and graduates, but it also allows companies to develop future employees.

“If everyone does their part, it’s a great situation because there are a lot of students who end up with future employers,” Jacobs said.

Internships — what you need to know

Internships are becoming an integral part of college curriculums, and employers are expecting college graduates to have had real workplace experience.

Katie Boyd, a junior audio engineering technology major at Belmont University, is currently interning at Starstruck Studios in Nashville. Though her internship is unpaid, she’s receiving one hour of college credit.

“It’s a learning experience,” Boyd said. “It’s like a class in that you’re learning from it, so I think it’s worth it.”

With the state of the economy, both students and companies are experiencing financial strain. For Boyd, she understands the challenge facing interns and their employers.

“If they can’t pay you, they can’t pay you,” she said. “And if you can’t get credit, if you can’t afford school credit, then you can’t . . . it’s just difficult when you can’t take an internship because you can’t get credit for it.”

Tyler Whetstone, a sophomore communications major at Trevecca Nazarene University, is interning in Washington, D.C. with The Dailey Caller, a 24 hour news source.

Though Whetstone isn’t being paid,  he’s earning 16 hours of college credit through a program offered by The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

For Whetstone, the work experience and contacts he’s making in journalism is invaluable.

“I think that if you’re gaining college credit for what you’re doing, then that is payment enough,” he said.

Whetstone didn’t know about the internship guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Labor, but he thinks it’s helpful to have regulations “to keep people honest.”

When it comes to the workplace, individuals are responsible for knowing their rights, so research workplace fairness as well as federal and state labor laws to protect yourself.

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