Should Unpaid Internships Be Illegal?

I learned a long time ago that if I want to break into magazine writing I would have to get some internships under my belt. And after searching high and low, I later learned those internships would most likely be unpaid. Did I want to make big money while working full time at a job? Of course, but if working my patootie off to pad my resume required a financial sacrifice, then I was more than willing to do it.

But some people don’t agree and actually want to make unpaid internships illegal! Worried that many companies are illegally using students for free labor, many officials in Oregon, California and other states want to change the rules and require companies to pay their interns.

Honestly, this is something I never really thought of before.  In my eyes, the benefit of my unpaid internships has been the experience gained on my resume. I always just accepted that unpaid internships were something everyone had to have if they wanted to move up the ladder. Sure, it wasn’t ideal, but that’s just the way things were, and if you were learning something about your future career then it was all worth it.

But then I started thinking about all those bullsh*t internships out there. You know, the ones where you’re making copies, fetching coffee and answering phones. The ones that have literally nothing to do with your future career interests, but you take because you think it will still look good on your resume. Like an NYU intern at a Manhattan children’s film company who was assigned to the facilities department to wipe the doorknobs each day to prevent Swine Flu from spreading through the office. I don’t know what the job listing was, but I’m pretty sure that student didn’t plan on adding “door knob cleaner” to their resume. How did he benefit from that?

And then there are those students who can’t afford unpaid internships. Even if they could gain hella experience in some awesome internship program, they might not be able to sacrifice a summer of making money to do it. How is it fair that they become less competitive candidates for future jobs just because someone else was lucky enough to have their parents footing the bill for the summer?

All those things considered, I can totally get on board with this whole “unpaid internships should be illegal” business. Well, that and the fact that I’d like to bring home a paycheck for the work I do. I mean, who in their right mind wouldn’t want to make money for working? Even my little cousins won’t do their chores without getting a little somethin’ somethin’ from their parents. But is this realistic? And what if it happens and companies who can’t afford paid interns just stop offering internships? How are the 83% of students who now seek them out all supposed to get them? Yeah, some internships are BS, but some actually do teach you something and internships are valuable for future employers who seek students with relevant experience.

What are we supposed to do when we can’t get that experience?

I’m all about being compensated for my work, but I also really value the unpaid internship opportunities that I’ve had. I’ve learned so much and I know they will help me when graduation hits and I’m dumped into the craptastic job market. Would college students really benefit if those opportunities didn’t exist?



  1. Bailey says:

    I don't completely disagree with unpaid internships because, in my experience, they can be extremely beneficial. However, I know there are a lot of unpaid internships that are, like you say, a waste of everyone's time and energy.

    In my internship last summer, I wasn't paid directly, but the company (based out of NYC) paid for my train pass from Manhattan to the Westchester town (about $200/month for 3 mos.) and gave me a weekly lunch stipend of $40. So all in all, they did cover a giant percentage of what I would have spent on those things. Because of that, I was more ok with the fact that they didn't pay me directly for my work – and I'm not a rich girl who can just afford to blow the summer in New York.

    I do disagree with completely unpaid internships that have no perks, but I am ok with an unpaid internship that gives you benefits like the ones I had.

  2. Lisa says:

    I agree and disagree.Some companies simply won't hire interns if they need to pay them which would end up being a bad thing, but there should be some sort of regulations in place to make sure that the companies aren't using interns for just free labour.

  3. Psitta Lux says:

    I don't think there's a problem with it if you KNOW you're not going to get paid.

  4. ChelseyKelsey says:

    I agree with Bailey.

    I had an internship fall/winter quarter. I told them spring quarter that I couldn't come back because it was COSTING me over $100 a month to drive to work/pay for parking/etc. Luckily they agreed to pay for my parking.

    I'm okay with an internship being unpaid, but an internship that ends up costing you money is a problem.

  5. Miriam says:

    There's a huge problem with unpaid internships. They discriminate against people who can't afford to work for free–for instance, me. I take a job during the summer in order to make money for my own living expenses, since my tuition takes more than my parents can pay. I can't afford to spend a summer working me ass off for free. It's discriminatory and unfair.

  6. cindy says:

    Um…as far as i know unpaid internships ARE illegal. You're supposed to at least be getting school credit for them, or else they're illegal unless you get something like a travel stipend or you're hired as a "volunteer".

  7. Doug says:

    Most companies simply wouldn't have internships if they had to pay them.

  8. Lynn says:

    The problem with unpaid internships is that in many cases, there is a reason they are unpaid – students don't actually have the skills or experience to contribute anything to the company. "Slave labor" implies that the company gets this huge benefit for free. It really doesn't. The company doesn't exactly save money by having interns – the menial tasks can easily be done by their employees (and are during the rest of the year). So in a way companies are doing students a favor – taking on what is essentially dead weight and giving them some type of learning experience.

    That is why it is almost unheard of for engineering internships to be unpaid (at least in CS, which I study), because those students can actually make something concrete – code – that will be used by the company. Engineering interns do the same work as actual employees only for less money and no benefits.

    In theory, I agree with making all internships paid. But if it is required for companies to pay students, a lot of internships will be dropped, because they get no real benefit from having interns. Interns do "work," but their work is not really needed by the company. And if someone's skills are not in demand, it is hard to charge a high price for them.

  9. Vicki says:

    I am in an unpaid internship right now, and I have absolutely no problem with that. The only caveat to the statement, though, is that I am staying at home while having this internship, meaning that I don't have expenses that I would have if I was not staying at home. Also, this internship is a graduation requirement, and is also at a police department, so I knew that it was going to be unpaid. I don't really preform a lot of "menial" tasks, but I do my share in helping get things done just because I know that the department has so many things to do every day. Even this most mundane tasks are still a learning opportunity because I am still learning about all that the police do.

    I don't really see the problem with unpaid internships as long as the applicants know that up front. Maybe internships like mine are the exception of most unpaid internships, but I am enjoying just about every minute of it.

  10. Victoria says:

    In Canada we don't really have many internships that I know of, but I definitely agree with your points. There are some volunteer positions that I would love to get involved with but I need to work full time in a paid position this summer to have enough money for my tuition (I pay completely on my own, my parents don't pay for me).

  11. cio says:

    @Victoria.. there are a lot of internship opportunities in Canada.. a friend of mine is doing one at CBC for journalism this summer… but it depends on the field. I was in science, so in the summers I could get summer jobs related to my field, but most research positions were paid. I think business internships are usually paid too.. not sure though, they are required for most business degree programs

  12. Ellie says:

    Unpaid internships really are just helping out the rich kids who can bum off their parents for a summer. (I have no problem with volunteer positions–those are designed to allow someone to work, as well.)

    Higher education and unpaid internships: just a few of the ways we like to keep the poor in their place.

  13. Al says:

    If you are unpaid you are not an "employee:. So what would the Company be legally responsible for in the person had an on the job accident.

    An employee would have Workers Compensation and Bills would be paid for.

    An unpaid Intern would not have any recourse for any payment of any Medical Bills.

    All they would have to do is give them Minimum Wage for their Internship.

  14. […] Unpaid Internships Be Illegal? […]

  15. Eve Tahmincioglu says:

    I've written extensively about unpaid internships and in some cases they are legal and beneficial.

    The Department of Labor actually has six criteria they use in determining if an unpaid internship is really an internship and not just worker exploitation:

    1. The training is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction;

    2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees or students;

    3. The trainees or students do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;

    4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;

    5. The trainees or students are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and

    6. The employer and the trainees or students understand that the trainees or students are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

    For college students getting credit for an internship, the experience can be educational and play a key role in your future career. But you don't want a company to take advantage of you.

    I recently wrote a piece for Time magazine on unpaid internships for college graduates and mid-career types.,9171,… And I've written a lot about the issue for my blog (

    No one wants to take the valuable internship experience away from folks, but employers need to follow the letter of the law when initiating such programs.

  16. Starr says:

    As someone who has to work to pay for rent, etc. I have a huge problem with unpaid internships. In the future, will my competition get the job when I don't just because they were able to have an internship because their parents have money & mine don't? I know life isn't fair, but this is just wrong. Most companies that offer internships ( unpaid or not) can afford to pay their internships minimum wage. Or they could at least provide your room & board.

  17. […] didn’t plan on adding “door knob cleaner” to their resume. How did he benefit from that?Click here to read the rest of this article at CollegeCandy, and let us know what you think! […]

  18. Robyn says:

    There's a really good commenting dialogue over at over this issue, mostly pertaining to internships in the fashion industry, which is possibly one of the most guilty parties. Check it out here:

  19. Agnes says:

    I think unpaid internships that follow the law laid out in Eve's post can be a good thing (though there is still the class discrimination problem). But SO many internships don't do that.

    I had an unpaid internship in film where they just straight up used me (and the one other intern) as the receptionist/office assistant for the company. It's not that we helped the receptionist — they didn't HAVE a paid receptionist. We were expected to get there before almost all employees, answer all the phones, order office supplies, order food when there were clients, work the desk, etc. etc. etc., and they didn't even train us. And then they would yell at us if we messed up in any way.

    In exchange we got to read a few scripts that were in development, and the person who was supposed to be our mentor met with us MAYBE once a week for half and hour.

    I ended up quitting, because the environment just wasn't healthy. I'm fine being a receptionist, but we should have been paid! Or at the very least, we should have been treated as trainees. Receptionist skills are useful to learn, but you can't learn if you're being treated as if you should already know what to do. As I said to the other intern, if they wanted us to act like professional receptionists (and not just untrained students who were trying, but sometimes messing up), they needed to shell out the money for someone with experience.

    In conclusion, try your best to learn exactly what you're getting into!

  20. deandrea says:

    I think some of the unpaid internships I've had have been some of the most exploitative and demeaning experiences ever. I've been asked to fetch people lunch and scrape plaster off of a floor. I AM ALREADY A COLLEGE GRADUATE. I took my latest internship on the promise of a future job at a start up company in my area. I made their official website, I designed their official fliers. They paid me nothing and are still using my work to this day!

  21. […] don’t actually have a stake in the matter, I must note. *Suck it, employed people!*) have made a big deal out of internships – Are they fair? Are they worth it? Are they even legal? Since summer is basically the official […]

  22. hermes kelly bag says:

    I think some of the unpaid internships I’ve had have been some of the most exploitative and demeaning experiences ever. I’ve been asked to fetch people lunch and scrape plaster off of a floor. I AM ALREADY A COLLEGE GRADUATE. I took my latest internship on the promise of a future job at a start up company in my area. I made their official website, I designed their official fliers. They paid me nothing and are still using my work to this day!

  23. halosmyth says:

    Unpaid internships are already illegal, if the intern does anything that directly benefits the company they are supposed to be paid. The way internships are supposed to work is they go to the company and learn from someone, but once the intern does anything that benefits the company, even just answering a phone call they are no longer an intern they are an employee and should be paid like one, i mean even minimum wadge.

    Also it's unrealistic to ask students to work full time for free, I can understanding devoting 10-15 hours a week to an unpaid internship but anything more than that is unreasonable unless the student is independently wealthy.

    The Labor Department's six criteria for a legal unpaid internship are:

    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.

  24. overtone says:

    Im a student in computer science and i hate the idea of unpaid internships. i dont live with parent and ave rent and bills to pay. an unpaid internshi[p is fine if its about 2 weeks long. but how are we supposed to survive after that.

    not everyone has parents who can afford to put them through college. im for making them illegal

  25. vancouverfashionweak says:

    Help us! We need people to comment on their personal experiences, it can be done anonymously. This unqualified producer is a scam artist on all levels, breaking labour laws by employing over 100 interns with no management and is embarrassing our city. This is not a pro or amateur situation, it's about a man that cons designers (from abroad) uses students and makes inappropriate passes at them, low production quality and pocketed sponsorship dollars. It's called a scam. And it has been overlooked for years.
    On Monday this goes to the press…and on Wednesday our Mayor.

    Please say something on there!

  26. ROC says:

    I had an internship to learn video editing, it was required that I already have experience editing videos, I went to the internship for a month and helped edit a video that the company was getting paid for but I was not. The owners of the company told me that they would be leaving town for a while to shoot a documentary, they left and I never heard from them again, I was compensated in sandwiches though.

    The other day I had an Internship interview for what I thought was a media company looking to add videos to their site, when I went to the interview it was one guy hustling selling stuff out of a small office who wanted to do videos on specific topics basically for his own personal enjoyment and he called this an internship.

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