Unpaid internships offer few protections for participants

Lauren Franklin

College students are no strangers to internships. In our quest to have productive summers, meaningful college experiences and dazzling resumes, many of us have found ourselves interning in a company or organization that we feel suits our interests and our career goals. Some of these internships are paid, but many are not.  

Recently, the question of rights for unpaid interns has made headlines.  Starting with the “Black Swan” lawsuit in June, in which two unpaid production interns who worked on the film filed a lawsuit for compensation and won, unpaid interns have started filing lawsuits against their former employers. The main question in these cases was the legality of using unpaid interns for jobs that paid employees would normally do.  

However, in the case of Phoenix Satellite Television intern Lihuan Wang, who was sexually harassed by her boss, the question of fairness takes on a new form. Because Wang was not a paid employee, she was not protected from sexual harassment under law. Although Phoenix investigated the matter and fired her harasser, her harasser was not held legally responsible for his actions. According to an article on the matter by USA Today, Oregon was the only state as of June to protect unpaid interns from sexual harassment by law.

The sexual harassment of unpaid interns is not a new phenomenon. In 1994, nursing intern Bridget O’Connor was also similarly harassed and brought her case to court.  Her case was thrown out, too, on the grounds that she was unpaid, did not receive employee benefits and was therefore not an employee. In 2007, a claim by an intern working in a chiropractor’s office was also dismissed. The list goes on.

In these cases, interns receive no protection in their work environment, even though they still view their harassers as employers.  

Clearly, this news is shocking and frightening for those persons whose only pathway to their chosen field is through unpaid internships. Internships started out as a type of apprenticeship in which people were trained for a particular type of job. They were not the norm, but rather used for specialized sectors of an industry. Now, however, internships often take the place of entry-level positions — making getting a job in certain businesses difficult, if not impossible, without internship experience.

Another problem with unpaid internships?  If they really do act as a stepping stone between college and a full-time job, those who need to support themselves may be unable to participate in this “essential” experience.  

What does all this mean for college students? I am graduating from UT in less than two months, so I am venturing into the job market. However, with my liberal arts degree, I often feel unprepared for a job in the “real world.”  I ask myself at least once a week, “What can you do professionally?” Whether this feeling of unpreparedness is founded or not, it is a feeling that many liberal arts students have.

These sentiments about job-readiness only serve to further the growing number of unpaid internships that may have serious consequences for both those who intern and those who cannot. If we are convinced that our education is not enough to deserve a paying job, we will not get paying jobs. Instead, we will accept unpaid positions, because we feel that is what we deserve.  

Yet to be an unpaid intern is to be vulnerable to abuses. In an age when internships are expected of young workers, the fact that interns are unprotected from sexual harassment means that most young workers are unprotected from sexual harassment. In addition, these young interns occupy a sort of professional limbo. They do not have job stability and may see their internship as their only path to success. Therefore, interns may be unequipped to deal with and speak out about their harassment, feeling that they will lose their chance to “make it” in their profession if they do.

Despite the lawsuits and the increasing awareness about the possible injustices of unpaid internships, there will continue to be unpaid interns who suffer injustices in the name of success, as well as those who are barred from success because they cannot afford to work for free. Until changes are enacted, young people will continue to face huge, if not insurmountable, hurdles in the form of unpaid internships.

Franklin is a Plan II, linguistics and Middle Eastern languages and cultures senior from Sugar Land.