Make Known Unknown (Blog 9)

Unpaid Interns: Deprived of Pay and Civil Rights


Theresa brought the issue of unpaid interns to our attention a couple of weeks ago in her blog post Are unpaid internships ethical? I decided to delve into this topic farther and found many articles on the ProPublica website. The most interesting highlights an issue that is caused by interns not being paid, the civil rights that they have in the workplace as interns, specifically protection against sexual harassment.

Let me back up and summarize the requirements of an unpaid internship. The Department of Labor has a six-factor test used to determine if an intern must be paid. The criteria are:

  • The internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
  • It’s for the benefit of the intern
  • The intern doesn’t displace paid employees
  • The employer doesn’t benefit from work the intern is doing, “and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”
  • The intern isn’t promised a job at the end (unpaid “tryouts” aren’t allowed)
  • Both the intern and their boss understand it is an unpaid position

According to this, Blair Hickman and Christie Thompson think that it is rarely acceptable to not pay an intern at a for-profit company. Generally, interns do work that benefits the company, which would constitute the need for the company to pay them.

If an intern is not paid, then they are not considered an employee of the company. Hickman and Thompson explain in their article How Unpaid Interns Aren’t Protected Against Sexual Harassment that because of this, they are not covered under the Civil Rights act that protects employees. They highlight a few cases where unpaid interns filed lawsuits against “employers” but their claims were dismissed because they were not technically employees.

Unpaid interns often do not complain of Civil rights issues because they do not want to lose a future opportunity, job offer, or recommendation due to retaliation. Some states, specifically Oregon, are changing their laws to ensure that unpaid interns’ civil rights are protected. This leads us back to the original question of “are unpaid internships ethical?” If these unpaid interns are really doing work for the company, they should be paid. If they are paid, they become employees, and are therefore covered under the Civil Rights Act.

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6 thoughts on “Unpaid Interns: Deprived of Pay and Civil Rights

  1. Wow that is crazy that the lack of pay results in a lack of rights. Certainly I don’t think that must people in unpaid intern positions are aware of the fact. This is a loophole for company’s. As an intern it is hard to judge what work will benefit the company and harder to argue with directions given to you. I think unpaid interns rarely end up walking away from the internship not having done work for the company. In this day and age kids do enough research to find places not to fill the bosses coffee and want to get something out of the experience so the company’s are exploiting that desire for “real world experience.”

  2. What a dumb loophole in the law. Especially as the core of sexual harassment theory is that the power one person has in an organization is the basis of the injustice. An intern’s mentor or supervisor has, if anything, even more power over an intern than he would over an employee. Hence, interns should clearly be a covered exception. We should Include unpaid interns working for non-profits!

  3. This is a very interesting point you brought into the debate of unpaid internships. It seems ridiculous that not only are they unpaid, but they do not have their civil rights. It seems almost backwards in my mind.

  4. I agree with Claire completely. I can’t believe that even though these interns are unpaid, they are not covered under the Civil Rights Act! I am glad some states are moving to make changes and make sure unpaid interns’ rights are protected.

  5. An intern isn’t protected from sexual harassment? Seems to me like interns are the most at-risk people to be sexually harassed. Makes no sense.

  6. This is an extremely interesting topic which I had no idea about. I did not realize that if the internship is unpaid then they are not covered under the Civil Rights Act. I believe something definitely needs to be done, but with the job market what solution is there?

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