Avoid Unpaid Internships at For-Profit Firms


Q.  I’m the first ever intern at a fairly new company, and my experience to date has been less than rewarding.  As background, I am not paid.  Second, I spend most of the day running errands, preparing packages for shipping, sorting mail and receptionist.  I’m not learning anything about the business or staff roles, and I was told today that it’s unlikely people will have much time to provide me with such insights because we’re so busy. I’m not a quitter, so I’ll hold out but I might have made a mistake. Stay or leave?  –RI

A.  This isn’t an internship; it’s illegal.  Before things get worse, talk with your boss about a better structured internship–a program that demonstrates you’re willing to work in exchange for the educational experience.  Your supervisor may simply need to be reminded of the reason you are there–and it’s not to replace someone they should be paying.  Don’t make it just about yourself.  Mention logical things that would provide an intern with a rewarding educational experience while doing some related work in return for the opportunity.

If your employer continues to say there isn’t time to provide such an experience, you should request that they pay you.  You can cite government regulations that cover such unpaid internships.  The U.S. Department of Labor regulations suggest that your current position should be paid, not unpaid. Don’t use this “card” unless your first approach is rejected. If both approaches fail, get out of there.

As I’ve written in previous posts, I am not a fan of unpaid internships.  I make exceptions for non-profit institutions.  In the case of your unpaid internship, your employer is getting far more than what they’re paying for.  You’ll be doing them and future interns a favor if you help them develop a meaningful and legal internship program.




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