More than a million Americans work as interns every year. Around half of these are unpaid.

Internships are common. For students or recent graduates, it’s great job training and a way to get your foot in the door. For the company/organization hiring interns, it’s a way to share knowledge, get fresh new faces/ideas and free (oh so awesomely free) labor.

Precious memories from my Congressional internship. Nick, me & Jason in front of the US Capitol. This internship was "paid" - I got a monthly stipend that covered 2/3 of my rent. Awesome. Photo Credit Annie Erling Gofus

We’ve all been there (or, most of us have). Sometimes these internships can lead to a job [both of the full-time jobs I’ve had since graduation started as internships (one paid, one unpaid)], other times it can leave the intern feeling violated. For example, two interns for the film Black Swan are filing an open class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures. The former interns claim that they were doing regular tasks beside paid employees, and now they’re suing for back-pay.

Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that only work done for training purposes could go unpaid. Since that ruling, more and more companies have been ignoring the law. Just last year, The Department of Labor issued a 6 point test to determine whether the unpaid work is actually legal:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
All the 6 factors must be met to qualify for legal unpaid work. Have you ever held an unpaid internship that didn’t meet one of these 6 factors?
But, I guess we’d better get used to it. Now, more than ever, employers are taking advantage of us over-educated, under-employed and overly desperate Americans. We’ll take anything (ANYTHING) we can add to our resume. With or without pay. But stay positive! Not all unpaid internships end in a law suit, some lead to paid jobs… fingers crossed.

While interning at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum I graduated from Permanent Exhibit Tour Guide Training. Don't I look happy? This intenship was unpaid. Photo Credit Annie Erling Gofus

– Annie Erling Gofus
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