Unpaid internships could jeopardize students' rights

Violations occur when companies that could offer compensation don't.
Spencer Pearson / Graphic Designer

Unpaid internships can be a draw to students for their real-world experience, but some of these jobs might be in violation of students' rights.

According to a recent New York Times report, officials in some states, including Oregon and California, are concerned unpaid internships might violate minimum wage laws, meaning employers are illegally using the interns for free labor.

Amy Bruer, academic adviser for the School of Journalism, said it's not unheard of for journalism students to take unpaid internships.

"Many times, if a student sees an opportunity to work at a company or media outlet they are interested in, and all they are offering is an unpaid internship, they'll take that opportunity to get their foot in the door," Bruer said.

Bruer said she and other advisers encourage students to find paid internships.

College of Business internship coordinator Rebecca Wolfe said business majors are required to complete an internship to graduate, which might cause them to take unpaid opportunities.

"We encourage the students to find paid internships, but it is unrealistic to think they will all get that lucky," Wolfe said.

Amanda Nell, senior coordinator of student services at the MU Career Center, said the issue is complicated because of various employers' different situations.

"There can be abuse by companies where they take advantage of students looking to pad their resume and don't pay them, even though they can afford the compensation," Nell said.

Some companies offer unpaid internships without this abuse, Nell said.

"Some companies don't have the resources to pay or are exempt because they are nonprofit organizations," Nell said.

Wolfe said more information on students' rights could help prevent students from being taken advantage of while in search of internships.

"It wouldn't hurt students to be a little more educated on the ins and outs of the internship process," Wolfe said.

Senior journalism major Max Hyman had an unpaid internship at WINS/1010, a New York radio station. Although he was not compensated, he said his situation was different.

"Many companies like that are union-based, so if you're not a member, you can't be paid," Hyman said. "At that point I hadn't paid my dues in the industry like everyone else in the newsroom, who were in the union."

Hyman said he was glad to have his opportunity despite the fact it was unpaid.

"I was willing to do an internship without pay, because it would still showcase my ability and look good on a resume," Hyman said.

Sophomore psychology major Vanessa Whitnell, who interned with pay at pharmaceutical company Akorn, said she had no idea companies had to meet certain criteria to avoid paying interns. She said the internship provided long-term advantages.

"It was a big benefit that I was able to work in a real work environment, but I probably wouldn't have done it without pay because it wasn't an internship that went hand in hand with what I want to do in life," she said.

Nell said students who are seeking internships within their desired field might be more willing to go without pay. She also said the MU Career Center tries to help students through the internship process as best they can.

"We just want to make sure students are educated on what would be appropriate for their interests and industry," Nell said. "Unpaid internships are out there, but that doesn't mean they're always negative."

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