Groups seek internship regulation

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April 27, 2010

5:21 AM

Labor organizations nationwide are trying to increase government oversight and regulation of unpaid internships due to fears of exploitation of students.

“Unpaid interns do not have civil rights because they apply only to paid employees,” Alexander Hertel-Fernandez of the Economic Policy Institute, a non profit political think tank, said. “Congress has to extend the Civil Rights Acts, Americans with Disabilities Act and other relevant legislation with provisions for students.”

The Federal Labor Standards Act of 1938 outlines the current regulations on unpaid internships.

The act was passed to clarify the decision in the United States Supreme Court case Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., which affirmed the legality of not paying a potential employee while he or she underwent a training program.

However, the FLSA applies only to for-profit companies.

Non profit organizations and government agencies have less stringent rules that affect their employment practices.

The FLSA has six requirements for unpaid positions: a company must not benefit from the employee; the intern must benefit from the experience; the intern must derive an educational benefit; the intern does not displace regular employees; the intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship and the intern must know he or she will not receive remuneration for their services.

Since this legislation was passed, federal courts have questioned the FLSA, saying not all six requirements are necessary.

EPI researchers Kathryn Edwards and Hertel-Fernandez suggest that there is widespread disregard for these terms.

According to Edwards and Hertel-Fernandez, governments do not stop these practices because they have no effective means of enforcement, and students in these internships harm their cause by reporting their situations.

The status of student is temporary, making labor tactics such as unionization difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

The U.S. Department of Labor altered its regulations for wage-per-hour laws last Friday, following many of Hertel-Fernandez and Edwards’ suggestions.

The Labor Department has yet to make regulations to enforce these amendments, however.

Another issue the EPI clarifies in its brief is the classification of student interns as private contractors to avoid hiring them as employees.

This was challenged in the Supreme Court case O’Connor v. Davis. Bridget O’Connor was required to complete 200 hours of unpaid work in order to receive a college degree.

She began interning at Rockland psychiatric hospital in Orangeburg, N.Y. where James Davis, a psychiatrist at the hospital, began to sexually harass her.

After working at the hospital for nearly four months, she left to complete her work hours elsewhere.

She eventually sued Davis, but his defense argued that the case be dismissed on the grounds she was not an employee.

While her legal aid argued that she was an employee as defined by common law, both the District Court and the Court of Appeals found she was not and dismissed the case.

“Students are told that internships are a sacrifice in the short term, but a benefit in the long term,” Judy Conti J.D. ’94, the federal advocacy coordinator for the non profit advocacy group National Employment Law Project said.

Conti said she suspects that this ingrained notion is one reason why students accept abuses as a normal part of unpaid labor.

“The negatives are both tangible and intangible,” Conti said.

EPI said it recognizes that reporting the situation is not in the direct interest of the students or universities. Challenging possibly unfair practices could be detrimental to a school’s ability to secure prestigious internships, and could harm a student’s resume.

“The EPI wants to help foster a culture of rights,” Hertel-Fernandez said.

This means creating legislation that could potentially force career centers or employers to inform unpaid student interns of their rights.

The College of William and Mary Career Center’s Local Internship Program offers unpaid internships for students during the school year. At least 266 students participated in this program last year. The College does not offer academic credit for these internships.

Instead of promoting exclusive summer internships, the College participates in the University Career Action Network database, which sponsors positions across the country. The database currently accepts applications from students at 22 colleges nationwide.

The W&M in Washington Program offers academic credit for internship positions. Students take courses offered through the office, and participate in complementary part-time work. The positions are also unpaid, and 151 students participated in the program last year.

“I can’t think of an internship that we offered that, at its core, was not educational,” Mary Schilling, director of the Career Center said.

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