As Americans celebrate Labor Day this weekend, a tried and true road to employment for young people is in danger of dramatically shrinking. Last June a federal judge ruled in favor of a 40 year-old intern who claims he was exploited by Fox Searchlight pictures. Since that decision, lawyers, labor leaders and others are lining up to put an end to a system that they claim violates federal labor standards and takes advantage of people desperate to gain experience in the working world. If these efforts are successful, the results would be tragic. Internships for college students, both paid and unpaid, have long been the first rung on the ladder of a successful career and are an indispensable part of creating opportunities for both rich and poor students alike.
Casualties are already occurring in this battle. Companies that used to open their doors to dozens of students have either closed their doors altogether or now offer one or two paid internships. That’s great for the two paid interns – not so good for the 10 students who were shut out. Students who had been willing forgo payment in exchange for experience, professional development, and valuable contacts are the big losers here. Companies that have long used their internship programs as a pool for future employees lose out as well.
Part of the problem is an antiquated law from 1938, The Fair Labor Standards Act along with the Department of Labor’s criteria that spells out the difference between an employee entitled to payment, as opposed to a “learner/trainee” who may be unpaid. These criteria for unpaid work need to be updated for the 21st century, recognizing that what made sense in 1938 doesn’t make sense for 2013. Number four in the list of six criteria should be removed completely; it states, “The employer provides the training and derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the student; and on occasion, the operations may actually be impeded by the training.” So the intern has to be completely useless and a pain in the butt on occasion to comply with this rule?
Here in Washington the majority of professionals, including some Members of Congress, got their start with an unpaid internship. Many of those same people are often hired at the very place they interned. During the summer, Washington is practically run by interns. Capitol Hill, federal agencies, K Street lobby shops, media outlets and many non-profits provide opportunities for some 40,000 plus students every summer. Why would we want to do anything that jeopardized the opportunity for that many students to get what for many is the chance of a lifetime? Of course it’s only the evil for-profit companies who are being asked to pay and not the virtuous folks on Capitol Hill or in government agencies.