Unpaid internships are classist — pay interns what they deserve

Illustration courtesy of Margot Heron
Reading Time: 3 minutes

As college students, we understand the toxic cycle and competition of internships better than anyone. We need internships to build applications and resumes, but we need to have built applications and resumes in order to get them. We also need to make money to pay off student loans and, you know, survive. Internships in general are a handful, but unpaid internships are a whole new playing field: they claim to expand opportunities for their interns by advertising that they “open doors” and “get you connections,” but chances are, the only students who can score one are the students who already lead a fairly privileged life.

Eager to make my political agenda present in the world, as well as build my resume and network, I scored an internship in Washington D.C. because of a connection to House of Representatives candidate Lillian Salerno. Salerno was starting a political action committee (PAC) and needed an intern, so I bought a plane ticket from Minneapolis to Washington D.C. and worked with Family Farm Action, a PAC focused on getting progressive candidates elected in rural areas. I was able to stay with family friends who happened to live an hour outside the city, and I took the metro to work in the morning. I was 17, working with people who were all at least ten years my senior, and I got loads of experience while developing relationships with inspiring people.

But the position required me to relocate for a month and figure out my own housing. The average American household could not afford that. For the vast majority of students who are equally as qualified and passionate, this would not have been in the cards.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a new trend shows that more employers are beginning to pay their interns, but 43.3 percent of internships are still unpaid. Both the public and private sector exploit young adults as a source of free labor: students need connections to further our future careers, and unpaid internships prey on that fact. Recommendation letters and weak connections to people in high-power positions serve as a haphazard form of “payment.” And unfortunately, this is often enough to reel students in because we want to feed our passion and build our resumes that badly. What are students to do when they want to follow their interests, get connections and build their resumes just as much as the next student — but have to work to put food on the table?

Interns from well-off families can gather connections to advance their careers, while young people from working-class families cannot make career connections because they need to work a job that pays. There is no guarantee that making connections in the long haul will outweigh the promise of cash-in-pocket that paying jobs provide. This opportunity-hoarding is extremely damaging to the working class and eliminates social mobility. Just like colleges and universities, unpaid internships are both an indicator and a cause of America’s depleting social mobility. Under this system, wealthy students can go work for governors, while working-class students are stuck working retail.

The Department of Labor (DOL) has a loose “primary beneficiary test,” essentially a list of vague factors that an intern arrangement must fit in order for the employer to pay the intern below minimum wage — meaning not at all. The fact that there is a test to see if an unpaid internship is fair implies that the DOL thinks at least some internships should be paid. The DOL also states that the test “necessarily depends on the unique circumstances of each case.” The ambiguity of this test allows for differing interpretations. Interns who need to be paid to take the opportunity could be discouraged from taking it, while others who can afford it are happy to take the position with no pay.

In theory, unpaid internships can provide interns with valuable and applicable skills that supplement classroom learning. For example, in my internship, I learned how to conduct fundraising research, organize events and write up reports on candidates — all skills I believe will come in useful in my future career. That may not always be the case, though; often times interns are stuck getting coffee and digging through filing cabinets. For some students, the risk of landing an unproductive, unpaid internship is simply not worth the effort of applying.

Knowing about the disparities unpaid internships reinforce, we need to be aware of our privilege and be sure to use the leg-up this internship provides us with to advance society towards a world where these divisions no longer exist. There are scholarships and grants to help remove the financial barriers to unpaid internships, but this is not enough. The lack of specificity in DOL’s “primary beneficiary test” makes it too easy for employers to not pay their interns. The solution is simple — employers should pay their interns for the work they do.

Julia Eubanks is an undeclared first year. She can be reached at jeubanks@oxy.edu.