How fair are unpaid internships

Photo provided by Abigail French ’20
Abigail French ‘20, a current intern for VPIRG. She has worked for them the past two summers doing canvassing work
such as pushing the plastic bag ban for the state of Vermont.

By Ryan Boyd

Staff Writer

Two summers ago, Mackenzie Goldup ‘21 had an unpaid internship at a small law firm in Albany, NY. However, this was an internship that she had to pay for since she was taking it for college credit that is required with a Public History minor and that came with challenges.

 “The $850 I had to pay for the summer semester messed up my finances and caused me to fall behind in payments for school,” Goldup said. “This put a hold on my registration that I was almost unable to get off my account in time to register for classes.” she explained, adding that she would not have been able to complete this internship requirement in the fall or spring because of the multiple jobs that she works on campus.

Deana DiBenedetto ‘20 interned at the American Bar Association’s Government Affairs Office in Washington, D.C. during fall of 2019. DiBenedetto said her position differed drastically from the duties of full-time employees. “The focus of my role was to learn, and actually to enjoy myself while I did it. There were many occasions upon which my supervisor told me to attend a hearing in Congress, a tour of the Supreme Court, or a panel event for my own benefit rather than the organization.”

Competition for these internships can be fierce and as a result many students find themselves accepting positions as unpaid interns. But what works well for some, can be a difficult situation for others. When college students can’t afford to work for free it forces them to turn down opportunities with unpaid internships. This creates a lack of diversity in unpaid interns which leads to less dynamic work environments.

In order to make money while working as an unpaid intern and a full-time college student DiBenedetto worked as a peer note taker and program ambassador. And she saved money from working over the summer. She pointed to the importance of keeping as many opportunities available as possible. “Many internship positions probably would not even exist if there was a mandate that all interns be paid, as companies and organizations would not have the money to pay students who have no experience to begin with.”

There are many factors beyond just pay that go into accepting an internship offer. “It really depends on a student’s major, field and industry because for some majors it is much more common to have unpaid internships than it is for others,” said Ingrid Peterson, director of the Career Education Center at Saint Michael’s who helps many students search and prepare for internships and internship application processes. “Even in fields where paid internships are common, many nonprofits can’t afford to pay interns.”

An unpaid internship must meet several requirements for it to comply with the Department of Labor rules and regulations. If an intern is not going to be paid, the intern must in some way be the primary beneficiary of the arrangement, as opposed to the employer being the primary beneficiary. If the employer is determined to be the primary beneficiary, then the intern would be classified as an employee and would be entitled to pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Despite it being the norm in some industries many students do not want to work for free or don’t have the opportunity to even if they want to. It can often send a message that the work that interns do is worth $0 to the company. “I absolutely hate working without getting paid,” Goldup said. “Because even if I’m getting nice little things like experience and networking, which are useful, it doesn’t make up for the fact that I have things I have to pay for and if I don’t then it could affect my ability to go back to school.”