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Miami professor researches the illegality of unpaid internships

Staff Writer

Published: Friday, March 22, 2013

Updated: Friday, March 22, 2013 01:03

The findings of one Miami Universty English professor may be startling to students considering internships. According to research conducted by English professor Katherine Durack, there is a problem with many unpaid internships that students are often unaware of—they are illegal.

In February, over 200 companies attended Miami’s Spring Internship and Career Expo (ICE), an event held each year for students looking for jobs and internships.

According to Miami marketing professor David Rosenthal, the number of companies at Spring ICE has increased over the years as the number of students looking for internships has.

Durack said she believes this is due to an increasing amount of pressure being put on students.

“I think that the expectation of students now is that in order to have a competitive advantage in the job market they need an internship or two or three,” Rosenthal said.

Junior Kirsten Melling agreed.

“The concept of an internship has become more the norm rather than the exception,” Melling said.

Durack began her research in the spring of 2012 when a local nonprofit called The Requiem Project asked her to assist with internships. Through this, she began to investigate the paid and unpaid internships for companies, and found information that concerned her.

“The landscape has changed since the recession,” Durack said. “Student debt has been rising and at the same time more companies are offering unpaid internships.”

According to Durack, the number of households with student debt is now one in five. She also found the average amount owed has increased by $3,333, the average salary of one paid internship, according to Durack.

Junior Jessica Howard said she found even more financial issues through her unpaid internship in the television industry.

“The amount the university charges for internship credit is pretty steep,” Howard said. “I think paying the university for these experiences is more unfair than not being paid for the job.”

However, Howard said she believes her internship will absolutely lead to a job offer within that field or company.

Durack said she wants students to know this information because, according to her, many students are unaware.

Melling is one of those students.

“That surprises me,” Melling said. “Especially since I’ve heard of so many people taking unpaid internships.”

The department of labor policy is outdated and not well regulated, according to Durack, but there are issues for students taking unpaid “illegal” internships.

According to Rosenthal, unpaid interns are left unprotected by workplace laws, including harassment.

“The courts have used pay as the determining factor for eligibility for recourse under the law,” Rosenthal said. “Interns are particularly vulnerable to questionable practices.”

Although they are illegal, the repercussions for companies offering illegal unpaid internships are unclear.

“As far as I know, nothing [happens] unless a student files a complaint,” Durack said. “This is where the enforcement by the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division would play a role, but from what I’ve read, enforcement is lax.”

The loose regulation of the law causes a growth in the number of unpaid internships, and may even have the ability to displace paid internships, according to Durack. Internships in communications and the arts are more likely to be unpaid, Durack said, as well as government and small nonprofit organizations.

However, Rosenthal said she recognizes some instances where unpaid internships are appropriate.

“A nonprofit organization is definitely going to be stretched for resources,” Rosenthal said. “Allowing someone to donate their time is perfectly okay. Fundamentally, it comes down to my belief that people should be rewarded for their hard work. That reward is typically called compensation. If you are volunteering in a nonprofit your reward is the feeling you have done good in the world.”

Senior Kylie Kochert said he had an unpaid internship summer of 2012 with a nonprofit organization, and said he has mixed feelings about the concept of unpaid internships. “This summer I didn’t really mind that I was not paid,” Kochert said. “I only worked part-time in the afternoon and had a paying job in the morning. I think the fact that I was being paid elsewhere was good and I viewed my unpaid internship as a great way to gain experiences in a field I am very interested in. However, if I did not have another paying job, I probably would have had more of a desire to be paid for my internship.”

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