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Miami professor researches the illegality of unpaid internships

By Rebecca Peets
On March 22, 2013

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."

Kochert said he believes unpaid internships benefit both the intern and the company, because the intern gets workplace experience and the company receives help that does not need to be compensated.

Unlike Kochert, Rosenthal said she does not recognize the morality of unpaid internships in for-profit institutions.

"There is no reason for a government job not to pay you," Rosenthal said. "They are paying their officials and covering costs, so I see no excuse to enslave their constituents."

According to her research, Durack has found in addition to financial issues, unpaid internships statistically do not measure up to paid ones.

"According to a survey of 2012 graduates, paid interns tend to get more real world experience than unpaid interns," Durack said. "Unpaid interns tend to do more clerical work."

Durack found 63 percent of paid interns receive a job offer upon graduation, compared to 41 percent of unpaid interns. This shows very little difference from the 40 percent who do not have internship experience and still receive a position at graduation, according to Durack.

According to Durack, she is most concerned in making students aware of their rights.

"Students should be aware that a lot of unpaid internships are illegal," Durack said. "Students need to know that they have skills worth paying for."

Protecting students, however, can be difficult for the administration.

According to the interim director of Career Services, Michael Goldman, there is no university-wide policy for dealing with paid or unpaid internships.

According to Goldman, Career Services tries to follow the guidelines from The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in order to choose which internships to promote. The guidelines have six criteria and can be referenced through Fact Sheet 71 of the U.S. Department of Labor.

"We carefully filter internships, whether they are promoted through a career fair or on career link," Goldman said. "Unless they are a not-for-profit or meet the NACE criteria, we do not allow them to post their positions or recruit for our students. We are very clear in our policies to employers and if they misrepresent whether their internship is paid we will bar them from posting their information on our site or coming to our career fairs."

The university has always been concerned with the quality of internships available to students, according to Goldman.

"We police job postings very carefully and advise students on what questions to ask during interviews to be sure their rights are being met," Goldman said.

The English department has been having a conversation about the legal and ethical issues that correspond with unpaid internships, and are revising and updating their internship guidelines, according to Durack.

"It is an issue depending on your major and career path," Goldman said. "We are trying to advise students on factors they should consider when looking for internships in those fields."

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