All work, no pay? The ethics behind unpaid internships

Image By Autumn Woodard

In June 2013, a Manhattan judge ruled in favor of two interns who weren’t paid for their time working with Fox Entertainment Industry. Instead of completely wiping out the unpaid internship, stricter guidelines were put in place.

To be considered ethical, unpaid internships must meet Labor Department guidelines.

According to a recent article in The Tennessean, because many lawsuits were filed last summer, employers have been forced to reevaluate their programs for this summer.

Employers are allowed to offer college credit instead of payment as long as the intern benefits from the internship and receives training similar to that used in a workplace while working closely with other staff members.

Both the employer and intern must also agree that that the intern will not be paid.

At Trevecca, these rules are set before students begin their internship. A contract must be signed stating the intern understands if they are taking an unpaid internship, they will not receive payment.

“There’s four parties that sign this contract,” said Nicole Hubbs. “We’re all agreeing that this is happening.”

The case of the Fox Entertainment Interns is a worse-case scenario, especially at Trevecca.

Hubbs said in the three years she’s worked at coordinator of junior and senior programs at Trevecca, she’s never had a student come to her with a problem of that magnitude.

“I check in with the intern and the supervisor to make sure that everything is going well. I’ve never had an intern come in and say that [their supervisor] is working them too hard or abusing their intern position,” she said. “As long as the intern is working at an internship that relates to their major, they’ve agreed on the hours with their supervisor and we’re all in communication about that, then it won’t get to the point where it’s unethical.”

Poor time management seems to be the biggest problem most Trevecca students face.

“The balance comes between still seeing yourself as a student but starting to see yourself as a working adult,” she said. “Some supervisors absolutely understand that this is a student in a learning experience and some will say, ‘Oh, you’re working. This is your job now.’ That is the hardest struggle. I think a lot of people struggle with that. An internship is a great lesson in time management. If you haven’t had to do that before, this is a great way to initially learn that.”

Caitie Mercer, a senior criminal justice major, spent 10 weeks working at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation as an unpaid intern.

Though Mercer didn’t receive payment for her work, she said her internship experience left her with knowledge she could carry with her after graduation.

“I think it was a great opportunity for me to learn,” she said. “It also helps me pursue a job in the criminal justice field post-grad.”

Mercer said as long as the student is learning something, there’s nothing unethical about being an intern.

“Voluntary internship programs should be interactive,” she said. “[Intern supervisors] should teach the student as much as possible about what to expect if they were ever to pursue that specific career.”

This semester there are 45 juniors and seniors doing internships at Trevecca.

Hubbs said she typically sees 30 to 50 students in her internship class per semester with more juniors in the fall and more graduating seniors in the spring.

To avoid that rushed feeling Hubbs said many senior interns feel, she recommends students taking an internship as early as possible, preferably in their junior year.

“Come see me as soon as possible,” she said. “I would always advise a student to take it earlier than to take it later. I would always advise to do it earlier because if you have a bad experience you can step back a little bit and if it goes really well, they could ask you to stay. A lot of our interns have gotten their first job from their internships which is a huge bonus for us, I’m always glad to hear that.”

She said for students to gain the most out of their internship, they need to speak with her as soon as they can during the pre-registration period. No student will be given credit for an internship already completed without signing the contract and registering for the class.

“Internships are a good experience because at least you know what you want to do,” she said. “You expand your network. You now have a contact in your field. You’ve expanded your network you can use for future jobs, and it will solidify what you want to do with your major. It will help you have competence with your major and why you chose it.”

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