Steven Greenhouse has a story unsurprisingly but usefully showing that the bad economy is pushing more young people into unpaid internships. One particular point of interest to me is the question of their legality:
The Labor Department says that if employers do not want to pay their interns, the internships must resemble vocational education, the interns must work under close supervision, their work cannot be used as a substitute for regular employees and their work cannot be of immediate benefit to the employer.
But in practice, there is little to stop employers from exploiting interns. The Labor Department rarely cracks down on offenders, saying that it has limited resources and that unpaid interns are loath to file complaints for fear of jeopardizing any future job search.
My question: how many internships don’t provide “immediate benefit to the employer”? Obviously, internships where interns make photocopies and do filing when they’re not making runs to Starbucks are transparently illegal, but even if internships involve the interns learning something, what percentage don’t provide immediate benefits and replace regular employees? It must be miniscule. Any legal action is going to be of limited effect as long as young people entering the labor market have almost no leverage, but it would be still be nice to see some of the lawsuits against the worst offenders succeed.
[Update–EL] I was about to post on a very similar topic; instead, I’ll just link to this Time piece on the people suing over unpaid internships.