Unpaid internships at for-profit businesses are illegal, unethical and need to be stopped
Students in non-STEM majors in Eastern Washington and beyond are facing an overcrowded job market with a challenging barrier to entry; young professionals already facing hefty debt have been forced to accept the added economic burden of unpaid work in exchange for a resume boost.
Because the Washington state Department of Labor does not offer productive methods for reporting illegal and unpaid work at for-profit businesses, companies often have little to no incentive to develop paid positions for their interns. Speaking with Romeal Watson, an internship coordinator at Eastern Washington University, of the 900 internships Watson processes in a year, he “would say 60 percent to 70 percent of those internships are unpaid.”
Legally speaking, unpaid internships in Washington state must comply with a set of six criteria as outlined by the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries. The first criterion outlined clearly states that unpaid internships must remain educational; the second criterion states outright that in an unpaid internship the training is for the benefit of the trainee. Additionally, criterion four states that the business that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and may in fact be impeded.
If these six criteria are held true, an unpaid internship seems more than fair. According to these standards, students are expected to be pursuing an educational experience and are not legally allowed to be doing work that could instead be performed by another employee.
In practice, however, if a student in an unpaid internship finds their position to be illegal, they have few options for reporting an employer or receiving fair back wages. One would think anonymous reporting would be key for encouraging students to come forward, as the whole purpose of an unpaid internship is to make job connections and gain experience for a résumé. Currently, the only way to report an illegal internship is through an open investigation called by the intern through the Washington state Department of Labor. Students often do not report internships at all then, for fear of harming their future opportunities with the company.
Ethically speaking, this pattern of for-profit businesses hiring unpaid work is troublesome. Not only do such practices often violate the law with little to no consequence, but hiring unpaid interns limits the applicant pool to only those who can afford to work for free. Due to the lack of consequence for businesses and the subsequent rise in unpaid positions, students who cannot afford to work without pay basically can’t afford to have an internship.
Some local colleges are offering help for student interns through grants. Speaking with an internship adviser at Whitman College, students there can apply for an internship grant. Advisers at Whitman also have resources listed and on hand for students to reference and pursue. At Eastern Washington University, students can similarly pursue sponsorship through university faculty or departments. Meanwhile, other colleges offer no such assistance and also require students to find and complete an internship for part of their major.
I’ve had three unpaid internships that were great experiences, but working two jobs on top of school and an internship is not a healthy expectation for myself or for my fellow students. Working for free at a for-profit business is often illegal and unethical, and it’s clear we need a more effective way to report businesses that are taking advantage of student interns and their desperate search for experience.
Julia Olson is a recent graduate of Seattle University looking to work in public relations. Julia just put in her last day at her third unpaid internship and is excited to start the job hunt.
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