The intern strikes back

| Forum Editor

It’s getting to be that time of year again when we undergrads brush up our resumes, squeezing as many buzz words and leadership roles as we can into a single, well-formatted page. The actual internship experience may be rewarding, or you might start developing elaborate revenge fantasies, a la “Horrible Bosses.” Xuedan Wang’s experience was more like the latter. A former unpaid intern for the Hearst Corporation, she has begun a class-action lawsuit claiming the company owes wages to her and other interns going back to Feburary 2006. The class-action suit claims that Hearst violated state and federal minimum wage and overtime laws. As one of the thousands of wanna-be interns, I recognize the value of an unpaid internship. I also side with Ms. Wang. If college students are going to essentially work for free, we deserve to gain some benefit and be treated well.

Unpaid internships are a tricky business. While college students are not the most vulnerable people on the planet, there is room for abuse. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, unpaid internships are lawful so long as they are “educational” and “the internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.” Perhaps most relevant to Ms. Wang’s case, an intern cannot “displace regular employees.” She worked 40 to 55 hours a week. According to her, she and the other interns were treated as a “vital labor force” and often did work on par with that of regular, paid employees. I have little doubt that she was, in fact, exploited as unpaid labor. In any such experience, there’s a certain amount of tedious work and crap one has to put up with. Ms. Wang’s experience goes far beyond that.

So are unpaid internships worth it? I have some friends who scoff at the idea, and to a certain extent I understand their point. Why would anyone give up a salary to gain (or not gain) an intangible benefit like educational experience and a company name on your resume? Unpaid internships are a lifestyle choice as much as a way to gain career experience. They’re listed along with Starbucks coffee and studying abroad under “Stuff White People Like” for a reason: They indicate a certain amount of privilege. While you may be gaining valuable career experience, you’re working for free when you could get an actual job.

If you’re like me, you’re fortunate enough to have parents who have the means to pay your rent for the summer while recouping exactly none of your personal expenses. There is money out there for people to pay for their expenses during summer internships, but I can see how only wealthier students can afford to do something over the summer. There’s a hint of elitism, looking down on people working minimum wage summer jobs without obvious connection to career advancement.

That said, I had an unpaid internship last summer with NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri. My experience could not have been more different than Ms. Wang’s. My fellow interns and I were given substantive work and treated well. The experience was valuable and certainly educational. Several of my fellow interns had paying jobs as well, possibly because most of us only interned 15 to 20 hours a week. Part of the value, at least for me, came from my own wide-eyed enthusiasm for NARAL’s mission. I’m interested in politics, and I eventually want to become the type of lawyer that does the type of work NARAL does. My internship suited my purposes exactly. Would I have preferred to have been paid? Of course. But corny idealist that I am, the experience I gained was a fair exchange for my time.

Ms. Wang’s experiences and lawsuit shouldn’t dissuade anyone from taking an unpaid internship this summer. But Ms. Wang’s case does draw attention to the possible misuse of unpaid student labor and the culture of unpaid internships in general. If you’re considering an unpaid internship, figure out exactly what you want to get out of it, then talk with your boss to make sure that happens. We may be relatively inexperienced, but gaining experience is the whole point of an unpaid internship.

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