Unpaid internships dominate the workforce for college students – however, they might actually be illegal.
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College students: known for binge drinking, partying and perpetually being broke despite having one or two unpaid internships. We’ve all joked about the last scenario being illegal — but is it actually? With the window for job opportunities shrinking before the wide eyes of recent college graduates, internships are more important now than ever before for securing a full-time position. Eager college students are aware of the ticking clock before graduation and will reach for any opportunity they can find, even if it means fetching grande espressos in the name of “work experience.”

How is this justified?

Companies that exploit free labor all promise the same thing. No, you don’t get paid, but the work experience is far more valuable. In fact, most internships are actually illegal. Take it from this scene from “Adam Ruins Everything.” Many internships are nothing more than a tryout or test run for a job.

If the exploitation of free labor from young and ambitious college students sounds like an antiquated idea, that’s because it is; the Fair Labor Standards Act of the Department of Labor was created in 1938. Ironically, the act includes measures to prevent child labor. And, while the act was amended a few times over the years, including a Supreme Court decision in 1947, most companies are still stuck in a mindset from the 20th century when colleges were cheap and milkshakes were everywhere.

The act operates like this: unpaid internships are legal as long as they “are similar to training given in an educational environment” and meet a few conditions.

  1. It is “beneficial” to the intern.
  2. The intern is not a full-time hire.
  3. The intern doesn’t “replace” anybody already working there.
  4. There is no guarantee of employment.
  5. Both parties understand the intern would not be paid.

The biggest reason of all is that, again, the internship is similar to training in an educational environment. These reasons are not only highly subjective, but have also been ruled against in 2016 by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which made its own framework. The new rules actually give companies more leeway to impose their own regulations. It’s not only college students who hate unpaid internships, either. Interns Eric Glatt and Alex Footman sued Fox Searchlight Pictures in 2011 due to a violation of minimum wage laws. Glatt, who was 40, ended up being awarded $7,500 in the suit. The case led to a tidal wave of other lawsuits by former interns alleging unfair labor.

Takeaway

The case for unpaid internships being illegal is not simply because college students are complaining. It’s a matter of survival in a social climate that tells students to move out of their parents’ house by 22 and have sufficient means to sustain themselves in the form of a full-time, well-paying job. Unpaid internships have caused many college students to find alternative means of employment, popularizing the “side hustle” that many millennials have out of necessity. Let’s see if this is a trend that will change in the coming years.

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Header image: Getty Images

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Posted 01.11.2018 - 10:00 am EDT