Are Unpaid Internships Illegal?

by on September 7, 2008

Nobody wants to work for free, yet thousands upon thousands of college students do it every year. They’re not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts or because its for a good cause (ok, many students do take non-profit internships). They do it for “experience.” Many internships offer fantastic learning opportunities, but more often than not the best internships also happen to be paid. My Dad runs a small architecture firm, and he often hires interns. He says that any company that can’t make a profit on an employee who is making $10 an hour (or heave forbid the minimum wage) shouldn’t be in business. I think that he’s right.

Here on One Day, One Internship, we feature both paid internships and unpaid internships. We feature the unpaid ones begrudgingly because we want to be sure that our readers get a broad view of what kind of internships are out there. We have some ethical issues with most unpaid internships (we think that it’s cool for non-profits who are cash strapped), but we also wonder about the legal issues. In response, we’re going to try to answer the question: Are unpaid internship illegal?

If you’re looking for an internship in the law, you’ll probably really enjoy this post. If not, you’ll have to bear with us because it’s important to understand your rights. There aren’t any lawyers on the One Day, One Job / Internship staff, so we’re doing our best to read through the research to get an answer for you. Initially, some Googling turned up a Cohen and Wolf Case Study that outlines the legality of unpaid internships quite nicely. It says that the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division created a test to determine whether a “trainee” or intern is considered an “employee” based on a 1947 Supreme Court decision that evaluated whether “prospective train yard brakemen were ’employees’ within the meaning of the Fair Labor Standards Act.” The test requires that all 6 of the following statements are true about the intern’s time with the company.

1. If the training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in a vocational school;

2. If the training is for the benefit of the trainee;

3. If the trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;

4. If the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and, on occasion, the employer’s operations are actually impeded;

5. If the trainees are not necessarily entitled to employment at the completion of the training period;

6. If the employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

This is the law. If any one of these six statements is not true about a given internship, then the interns are considered “employees” and are subject to the monetary provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. That means that the interns are entitled to minimum wage and overtime compensation.

The situation gets a bit more confusing when you start interpreting what each of the six “tests” means. This page from the Texas State government sheds some light on some of the exceptions based on interpretations of the law, but it still doesn’t answer our question. The Fair Labor Standards Handbook for States, Local Governments and Schools, does, however, go into great detail about when a student intern is not considered an “employee.”

As a rule, the Department of Labor will not consider students to be employees when they are involved in education or training programs that are “designed to provide students with professional experience in the furtherance of their education and training and are academically oriented for their benefit” (Wage and Hour Opinion Letter, Jan. 28, 1988).


In a May 10, 1983, opinion letter, the Department of Labor determined that where students would receive college credits for performing an “internship… which involves the students in real-life situations and provides the students with educational experiences unobtainable in a classroom setting,” the interns would not be considered employees.

This seems to conflict with the interpretation found on The Labor and Employment Law Blog, which claims that all unpaid internships are illegal if the intern does any work that benefits the company.

There is no exception to the law allowed just because the “intern” may receive college credit… In order to qualify as an unpaid internship, the requirement is simple: no work can be performed that is of any benefit at all to the company. That is, you can not deliver mail, sort files, file papers, organize a person’s calendar, conduct market research, write reports, watch television shows and report on them, read scripts, schedule interviews, or any other job that assists the employer in any way in running their business.

This does not appear to be entirely correct, for it based on a strict interpretation of “If the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and, on occasion, the employer’s operations are actually impeded.” According to a 2002 decision by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, the definition of “no immediate advantage” depends on whether “productive work performed by the mentees would be offset by the burden to the employers (local businesses) from the training and supervision provided.” In other words, the standard of judgment is based on the net gain to the employer. It seems to follow that if a student benefits more from an internship program than his or her employer does, then the intern will not be considered an employee by the Department of Labor.

If you’re confused, that’s ok. The standards of legality for unpaid internships seem a bit wishy-washy – there’s a big gray area. Still, we would guess that many of the unpaid internships that are out there right now are in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. What can be done about this? Probably not too much. Bates College’s Economics Department has decided to reject all applications to receive credit for unpaid internships. They are taking a stand, and they should be applauded for it. This Slate article also does a nice job of taking employers to task for being so greedy when it comes to unpaid internships, but beyond moaning and groaning, interns don’t have much power to force employers to pay them. There’s always the option to sue, but is it really worth it?

So, are unpaid internships illegal?

Some are. Some aren’t. It depends upon quite a few factors. By definition unpaid internships are not illegal, but they must meet certain criteria to avoid violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.

One part of us wants to see better enforcement of current laws that affect unpaid internships, but another part of us worries us that it would create a chilling effect that would significantly reduce the number of internships that are offered by companies.

The decision to go unpaid as an intern is mostly personal. When you’re looking for an internship, you need to ask yourself, “will I benefit enough from the training and experience that I gain through this internship to make up for the forgone wages?” If the answer is yes, then you should apply.

Still, if an employer can’t figure out how to put you to good enough use to make more than minimum wage off of your labor, is it really a company that you want to be interning for?

The comments are open for you to leave your thoughts on unpaid internships and for any lawyers who might be reading to correct any mistakes that we have made.

{ 56 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven Rothberg September 7, 2008 at 9:42 pm

We addressed this same issue a while back on and reached the conclusion that unpaid internships are NOT illegal. See .


Willy Franzen September 7, 2008 at 10:43 pm

Hey Steven,

I took note of your article when I did the research for this article. I wanted to take a more in-depth look at what the law says and how it is interpreted. I think my results are correct that unpaid internships may or may not be illegal depending on the specific situation.


Rob September 8, 2008 at 3:16 pm


While the question of legality is important, I feel that a more important issue surrounding unpaid internships is opportunity.

Unpaid internships essentially open their doors only to those who can afford to partake in them. While some college students are fortunate enough to have college paid for them (either by scholarships or parents) others have to wait tables, babysit, or do part-time work in order to get by. For plenty of folks, school and a $10 per hour job is hard enough as it is – throwing 10-20 hours per week for an unpaid internship is just too much.

I recently participated in a very highly regarded internship program, 1200 miles away from my home. My $10 wage was enough to cover my rent, food, and occasional fun with friends. Was the experience worth it? Absolutely. Would I have even realistically has that opportunity if the internship was unpaid? Probably not.


Penny Loretto September 10, 2008 at 2:41 pm

I agree with all of the comments that have been made and I think that the issue of legality is of great concern to employers. On the other hand, a more pressing concern that I see is that which constitutes fairness and an employer’s moral obligation to do what’s right when utilizing high school and college students to provide services that are of benefit to the overall operation of an organization.

I think unpaid internships make sense for nonprofit organizations with limited financial resources but who have great opportunities for students to learn valuable knowledge and skills. These internships can provide students with the experience employers seek when hiring new full-time employees. Unfortunately, there are a number of students who can not participate in an unpaid internship . These students may be forced to find a summer job waiting tables or lifeguarding or even doing a paid internship in a field that is not in their area of interest. In that case, students may be able to volunteer for a few hours a week to be able to gain some experience in the nonprofit field and be able to list these experiences on their resume.

On the other hand, there are some excellent internships that offer competitive salaries and additional benefits and/or perks like providing money for transportation costs, concert tickets, free CD’s, dinners and admission to special events. These internships offer students an opportunity to gain valuable experience while being compensated quite nicely for their work. These organizations value their employees and their interns and the collaboration establishes a win-win situation for both parties. Many of these interns are eventually hired on by these organizations and they and the employer continue to enjoy long-term, mutually beneficial, positive employer-employee relationships.

Lastly, there are the organizations that have interns work hard but do not compensate them for their efforts. These organizations often require that students receive credit for their internships. Receiving credit for an internship may be perceived as compensation and it is often initiated to protect employers from legal issues stemming from hiring unpaid interns. When you read the 6 statements that exempt employers from having to pay interns based on the fact that the training is mostly of benefit to the intern and is similar to the training received at a vocational school, it should be noted that internships for credit may or may not legally relieve employers of their obligation to pay based on the requirements for paid compensation stated in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

It is unfortunate that many organizations and students don’t understand that these unpaid/for credit only opportunities are only available to a small percentage of students who can afford to work for no pay; since they will also have to pay their college or university tuition in order to receive credits over the course of the summer. This puts many students at a definite disadvantage and limits these opportunities to only those few students who can afford to pay tuition and work for no money.

It is my view that students going to college and who are also doing internships, should be paid for their efforts whenever possible. Afterall, where else to you find people willing to work for nothing? It usually takes new employees a period of time to learn how to do their jobs; but, of course, they are also paid during this learning process. Many employers are losing out on a large percentage of talented, qualified, and skilled candidates who have financial obligations to meet in addition to completing a college’s academic requirements to graduate. These students already know how to manage their time and are able to succeed in their classes and maintain a high GPA, while also holding down a part or full-time job. Since many companies use their internship programs to recruit and train potential new employees, it seems that expecting these interns to pay college tuition plus work for no pay; ultimately limits employers from finding the best and most qualified candidates.


Jack October 11, 2008 at 10:39 pm

For Architects who are members of The American Institute of Architects it is unethical but not necessarily illegal to have unpaid interns. In my estimation, if you pay a typical intern’s wage and still cannot make money for your company by having a young and motivated person for a few months it is probably not worthwhile for either party. Obviously, not- for- profits are the exception.


Stephanie December 27, 2008 at 3:24 am

I personally hate internships because for me they never provided me with enough hands on experience. They were all unpaid and all I did was sit around and do homework or search the internet. Most students have experienced this as well and feel as though internships are a waste of time. The industry with the most useless internships are in music and entertainment.


jeff madison January 16, 2009 at 9:37 am

Most companies that I have dealt with offered paid only internships for the actual reason that they viewed internships as a way to begin building their pipeline of new employees. Now for smaller companies I can see how they may meet these criteria; but I would encourage anyone who is about to embark on an unpaid internship to thoroughly investigate their options and make sure that it is the right move for them. This pertaining more to for profit ventures, rather than not for profit but at the end of the day the advice is the same for both.


Scheherazade Mason January 16, 2009 at 9:56 am

At Bowdoin, we have 9 funds, donated by alumni, to help students get paid by the college for taking an unpaid internship. The way it works is, a student connects with an organization, and together they design a project that the student will spend the summer doing. The student has some negotiating power, because they won’t be funded unless the work is meaningful and substantial. The organization agrees to supervise and direct the program, and must also endorse the project in order for the student’s application for funding to succeed.

Although most of the funds support nonprofit and social service work, there are funds for entrepreneurial projects, and unpaid internships in business and government, too.

I encourage all students to apply for these, although only a few are awarded funding. The initiative and thoughtfulness that goes into imagining and designing a great internship application isn’t wasted. It can be a platform for other negotiations — a part-time, meaningful internship experience that is well-thought out and designed to give substantive experience, while a student scoops ice cream or waits tables or does landscaping work part-time might still result from the process.

It’s lousy that employers offer unpaid internships, but the solution is probably not in hoping for enforcement of labor standards. Funds like the ones at Bowdoin are short-term answers that keep college students from being taken advantage of, and make opportunities available to students who aren’t from privileged backgrounds. So, if you hate this particular form of servitude, consider donating a fund to your college to support students. The second solution is encouraging students to take a role in designing and seeking meaningful internships, rather than just applying for ones that are posted online and spending the summer surfing the internet and resenting that they’re not being paid.


Alex P. January 16, 2009 at 11:09 am

Great article Willy, Thank you. I’ve had a paid internship before, and it was a really good experience. It felt to be more like work than what one would think an “internship” is. And I’ve had some friends that have taken non-paid internships too. There were plenty of other perks that came with the program – credit, free clothing and gear, food during events. I guess it all depends on the situation and what a student is looking for. But previous comments are right too.


Jane January 30, 2009 at 2:34 am

Students that go into the work place NEED hands on experience in certain professions. By telling them dont go to an unpaid internship, you are belittling their sense of ‘working hard for their place’ and doing a great disservice. Our company uses unpaid internships and we see the amount of flakes out there. I started as an intern (unpaid) and now I am paid well. My company saw my hard work and hired me and gave me everything I need. If I were to by-pass that opportunity, i would be one of the many without a job.
Why not tell students to work hard, paid or not and they will learn along the way.
your article is long, boring and a completely negative. Your comment from your dad is stupid. Many great businesses barely get along because of the HUGE taxes (that will be raised shortly with our new president) and they deserve to be in business. I bet you’re the type that goes in and bargains your dog groomer down to $10 for an hour groom yet charges $500 for $10 worth of work.


Jeff February 3, 2009 at 10:21 am

Go read Applied Economics Thinking Beyond Stage One so you can see the historical and empirical evidence on why un-paid internships are good. I’m not your historian, so you can look it up yourself. If you’re liberal, don’t even waste your time, I know your kind is empirically retarded.

I worked as an intern for free at Merrill Lynch. I would say it was an even trade. I have a top company on my resume and they got some free labor. If it was not for me gaining some hands on experience and having a strong brand name like Merrill Lynch on my resume, I would not have gone as far as I have.

I just started a software company. I have one intern and he works for free. If he does a great job, then I plan to bring him on full time and give him a slice of the company. Most companies hire interns to see if there someone they’d like to hire.

If you don’t have any money, then, all I have to say is: life is not fair. Get out there and get the job done, expand your contacts and eventually things will work out.


johnnyf May 20, 2009 at 9:42 am

Wow, Last I checked college credits were expensive 280 plus per credit hour. If you get 3-4 credit hours in return for a a 6 week intern ship is this not fair compensation? 4×280 = $1120 vs wage $7 x 40 hours x 6 weeks = 1680 in wages for the summer. So is the experience you gain worth the $560 difference? I would say definatly. Believe me that the companies that offer unpaid for credits are not benifiting that much off of unpaid labor. They are trying to build there employment pipeline as they will pick the best of the interns and hire them. So this is a foot in the door and a competitive employment oppertunity for the interns.


Jessica December 31, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Unfortunately, most colleges and universities require students to register for an internship course. So – on top of not getting paid for the summer – students also have to pay their college in order to receive the credits.


Melbourne Interpreter June 1, 2009 at 10:40 am

I am an employer looking at whether we offer internships. We have had a number of requests for internships. We are an early stage business so every cent counts. We have rejected all students to date because of the work associated with managing the interns. Many have offered to be unpaid. We are considering the value of unpaid interns. I believe we now have a model that it will benefit all, but I am concerned the meaning of “immediate” under item 4. If the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and, on occasion, the employer’s operations are actually impeded;

We would not do it unless it provides all (intern and company) with some advantage.


Nicole June 29, 2009 at 12:51 am

I am out there begging for an unpaid internship in accounting. i am a college grad as of 2 years ago, ended up in a dead end position and know i need more skills to grow. dont knock the people that offer unpaid labor. i expect to work hard and learn something in the process. and no i dont have the money to afford this, we will be eating top ramen for 6 months and forgoing other “luxuries” with the knowledge that the internship will pay me in the future.


Ex Intern August 5, 2009 at 8:47 pm

Are unpaid internships illegal?

“It depends” is one way to put it. “Rarely” is more accurate.

We have been following this issue for three years at


Kristen August 10, 2009 at 12:12 am


Last fall I obtained an intern position working “under” the sales/marketing chairman for my aunts’ corporation; in all reality I was the sole person in charge of marketing research (working virtually), and only worked under the chairman for promotional events and/or retail trade shows.

Prior to the start of my intern my aunt had to fill out documentation provided by my university; she stated she would pay me $8/hr for the 270 hours required to fulfill my 6hr credit internship.

However, this was not the case, she paid for aproximatley 120 working hours and refuses to pay for the remaining hours. This is due to the fact I would not work a second retail trade show they wanted me to work simply because I had finished my work hours and had not seen a pay check in well over two months.

After numerous emails concerning my last due payment I have yet to hear any response; it has been atleast 8 months since I completed my hours.

I am looking for any legal advice.

With this being a family memember I want to make sure I have all “my ducks in a row” before I take legal action in my case.


Destroy Rock And Roll August 19, 2009 at 7:47 am

If I was really desperate in getting my feet wet in a very competitive industry like the entertainment industry I would do an unpaid internship. Absolutely. Internships are what makes students confident enough to get out in the industry if they didn’t have any connections. It’s a perfect opportunity to get experience etc and possibly network with folks and eventually maybe get a job with the company. I say no problem with unpaid internships. How else would I have gotten my experience if I didn’t do it? Complainers suck! Just shut up!


D October 6, 2009 at 5:27 pm

So, the question I’m left is how and who do I report an illegal internship to?


A October 13, 2009 at 3:11 pm

WOW. I would never want to work for JANE. Sounds like the boss of my last job, which was an UNPAID INTERNSHIP. I got a laughable stipend that didn’t even cover my travel expenses. I was doing administrative work, learning nothing, and working 11 or 12 hour days. Yes, students and recent graduates need to get experience, and they do need to work hard and put in their hours. My beef is with the people who call a job an internship as an excuse to not pay them.

Make sure you know who you are working for. Or quit! You don’t have to stay there. Its just an unfortunate fact that there will be someone else who doesn’t need the money that will take your place. So I guess the poor stay poor. GREAT.


Eric79 October 17, 2009 at 4:44 pm

For those of you who worked unpaid internships and said “I only got the job, because of it,” ask yourself, how mnay others that you work with ALSO worked unpaid. If it’s not near 100% then you were taken. You don’t know you couldn’t gotten a job with Merril Lynch. You assume so, but does everyone else in your position have a history of working for nothing.

Merril Lynch certainly can afford to pay minimum wage. There’s no reason for a company to expect anyone to work for free, period. If they can’t afford to pay minimum wage, then the work should be delegated to a salaried manager who works without overtime.

It’s circular logic to say “I only got it because of an unpaid internship.” If companies were required to pay there’d be less of it and if you “need” experience, you can volunteer at a company that is not profit and HELPS people and get the same experience, rather than at at Fortune 500 company where the CEO makes million a year. Shave off a few hundred thousand off the CEO salary and let them PAY MINIMUM WAGE for those interns


Eric79 October 17, 2009 at 4:49 pm

Report any possible illegal internships to your state labor board. Google your state’s name and the phrase “Department of Labor” and look for a section where you can report labor violations


AM November 4, 2009 at 11:52 am

Unpaid internships are almost never worth it. Those employers see that the work they are giving is pointless – if it wasn’t, if the work was worth anything even to them, they’d pay you for it.

I’m in my twenties and did my fair share of internships in college (count ’em: five). Out of all of those, only one was unpaid and it consisted of “promotions and event planning” aka, I worked at a bar during a remote for a radio station every week. It was a fun time, and gave me something to do on Wednesday nights, but did I learn ANYTHING from it? No. And they didn’t expect me to, either. They had 100 more willing to work for nothing interns out the door, just waiting to get some “experience” and work hard.

Companies know exactly what they’re doing when they try to hire interns and then not pay them. If you think that you want to work for a company that does that, I’d say look at your own life and your own goals first. Is it really ok with you to work for a company who thinks they are so awesome, that working for them will be the highlight of your life, that they won’t even pay you for your work?

I’m telling you, people complain about millenials all the time – but I’ve got beef with some baby boomers.


Marie December 1, 2009 at 3:09 pm

I recently accepted an unpaid, telecommuting internship where the work I do, will, in fact, benefit and profit the company. I’m basically developing tours to help launch a tour division of a company. These tours will be offered in 2010. If booked, they profit. Since there are currently three interns, by the time all is said and done, they should have at least 10 tours from each of us I’m guessing. Not all may sell, but they look promising. Someone brought to my attention that this could be unethical, and I never thought of that before. I am gaining experience, since I do research from home, but it’s also something that now that I know how to do, I can easily do this on my own….which, I essentially do anyways since I don’t go into an office for it.

I recently left a job and am going back to school part-time and have a few months before I absolutely need a new job. There IS the potential they may have opportunities when I finish in March, but no guarantees. Credit can be earned for school. I definitely need money though…

Any insight? The more I think about it I guess it IS wrong to hire unpaid interns when they will directly profit from what we produce.


Steven Paul January 8, 2010 at 5:05 pm

I graduated from college with a horrible gpa and 4 unpaid internships… I had no problem finding a job when I graduated. While it was a tough sacrifice, I am extremely thankful for the contacts and experience I gained through my unpaid internships.

In my opinion, for many companies, gpa is a great indicator of your intelligence and work ethic. However, if you worked for various companies and were able to consistently prove that you’re an intelligent person with a strong work ethic then GPA becomes a heck of lot less important. This gave me a competitive advantage over other job applicants whose gpa was a full point higher. Unpaid internships are great for all college students… especially for those who were a little “distracted” in their undergrad days. That said, you need to do your homework when selecting an unpaid internship.


laura January 19, 2010 at 8:41 am

I do admit that there are internship opportunities out there which give you genuine industry experience and the contacts you need to further your career. However, I think it is unacceptable to expect graduates, already up to their eyeballs in student debt to work for months on end unpaid.

TO add insult to injury some companies don’t even cover travel and lunch, but even if they do this still isn’t enough as people need something to live on. If you receive no extra support – be it through parents or other means – you simply cannot do one of these internships and therefore are at an immediate disadvantage compared to your peers who can do so. It is time that some sort of legislation is bought to the UK to stop interns being exploited. The UK is missing crucial talent as well as breeding an elitist, middle class work force in sectors such as government and media.

I have created a facebook group called ‘Exploited interns’

so please show your support and join!



Andy January 22, 2010 at 4:33 pm

It depends on what you do in your job, I guess. If your team leader has to invest a lot of time monitoring you week in week out, then that would be a finantial loss to the company wouldn’t it? Therefore an unpaid internship would compensate that loss. To be honest, I would prefer to work for a company for free for a year and get full support for the job that I am doing, as opposed to minimum wage and given rubbish assignments.


Maryann February 18, 2010 at 8:51 am

I think that there are a lot of companies that not only take advantage of interns, but employees as well. And as many out there know – even if you are an employee in the standard sense you could still run into the same problems as interns: unfair wages, rubbish assignments (to quote another poster:), etc

On top of this, many people find it hard to find quality internships due to their geographic area, their colleges not offering them, etc.

The debate will always go on as to whether unpaid internships are fair or not. I would venture to say that they are unfair – if you are doing menial tasks that do not provide any quality to either your education or to your resume. But, if you are really performing tasks that WILL add juice to your resume and go a long way in future employers eyes when they see it on your resume – wouldn’t you consider that fair? Especially if they are short, and you have your pick of which ones you apply for!


Joshua February 20, 2010 at 11:57 pm

I have worked as an intern in the past, which was unpaid. It is 4 months long, with an opportunity to join the company at the end.

It is a great experience where you are treated as a full employee, and you learn a lot! Obviously, the 4 months suck, especially the factor on you wonder if they will switch you over to becoming paid or not.

However, what I’ve heard is that the company, due to some limited funds at the time for the summer had two options.

1) Have one intern be fully paid
2) Have 5 interns under the 4 month unpaid scheme. That allowed the company to continue making money, while also ensuring that those that were not taking the internship seriously were weeded out after 4 months.

It’s not the best deal, but since it was a great learning experience, I thought it was worth it. I just had to be careful with money for those first 4 months.


Galen April 14, 2012 at 12:40 am

It sounds like the company you were working for was in flagrant violation of the FLSA: Student Interns / Trainees, subsections 3, 4, & 5.

3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation. (The company could afford to pay one intern or instead bring on 5 interns upaid to provide some sort of input to make profit on? Your stated scenario does not mathematically add up under the legally defined criterion.)

4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion his operations may actually be impeded. (You are an unpaid intern however “treated as a full employee” which is precisely the reason this legislation was written for in the first place and why the Supreme Court ultimately weighed in on the matter.)

5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period. (“It is 4 months long, with an opportunity to join the company at the end.” Was this truly an ‘opportunity’ as you purport or was this an introductory period to employment with the company?)

It seems as if companies run into a difficult situation with their labor costs and view ‘interns’ as a cost effective way to get labor inputs at little to no cost. If the latter is indeed the case then this is in violation of current law and is akin to indentured servitude (in this case an exchange of labor for a pittance, maybe, and questionable ‘experience’).

In my personal opinion, internships should be outlawed or at the very least the current laws should be properly enforced. If there was an outright boycott of internships by the labor force altogether the companies that offer these “opportunities” would be forced to legitimately hire personnel to further produce their product or service.


Maggie March 16, 2010 at 8:41 pm

I have a blog about my experience as an unpaid intern, and I am actually quite convinced, after reading this, that the internship is not legal.

I have a post on the specific subject:

But I’m pretty sure being required to go to my employer’s home to organize his CDs is not legal, whether he’s paying me or not (which he’s not).


yyy April 5, 2010 at 6:54 pm

The thing I have the biggest problem is unpaid “full time internships”. All of the respectful “unpaid” internships Ive had have either given allowances for part time work or given a moderate stipend. Yes a stipend may be ridiculous, but its better than nothing at all. Sometimes it seems like these companies dont want to seem “cheap” by making it a ‘volunteer’ position, when in reality they’re being extremely cheap.

Also, I find it laughable that people think the students taking these internships are the ones that can afford to “work with no pay” I’ve done unpaid internships, and could not work without pay. How did I do it. Hussling. It was a miserable time, but I don’t think I’ve ever learned about life as much as I did during that miserable time. I worked in DC (world capital of unpaid internships), bartended, and snuck out during lunch to sneak into political lectures where they provided free lunch. I handed out flyers in the mornings before going to work. I collected furniture from craigslist and collected professional clothes from friends.

I really don’t recommend unpaid internships if you have a GREAT, PAID job, but if you don’t have one, an unpaid internship is a way to play the game. It’s not a great game, and I didn’t make up the rules, so following the rules doesn’t make those who take unpaid internships idiots – it means they are realistic about their worth on the market. And let’s face it, the market does not give a flying ()*() about the internal worth of human beings.


cassandra wheeler May 7, 2010 at 8:26 am

Thank you for the clarification on the law regarding unpaid internships. We have students who search for internships for credit and those “management trainee” positions (these employers are easy to work with and they meet all 6 requirements of the test). It’s the employers that say “we need to hire an intern right away.” According to the DOL, this is a red flag and does not meet #4. If the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and, on occasion, the employer’s operations are actually impeded.

I will have to create an agreement (with our system legal)to employers who offer “unpaid internships” to our students and to remind them that they must meet all 6 of the following statements about the intern’s time with the company.


K E May 21, 2010 at 11:45 am

The real problem with unpaid interning that it’s a “Tragedy of the Commons” situation – where the action of each individual (intern), done in that individual’s self-interest, ends up harming everyone.

Working for free is a race to the bottom – longtime “Eternal interns”who can’t find paid work are discovering for themselves that it drags down everyone’s wage, because they are undercutting each other for $0. Not only that, but it’s gone on so long now, that employers are skipping hiring more experienced, PAID workers – with morons like you who work for nothing.

So don’t just blame the employers – YOU guys trained them to expect free help. It’s your own collective fault that you are now stuck in unpaid internship hell.

It’s a proven fact that the judgment sector of the brain does not mature until after age 24 – hence why you can’t rent a car until you’re 25. “Interns” who work for free are just another reflection of the storied lack of judgment in youth.


K E May 21, 2010 at 11:57 am

PS – you can also blame the parents who are subsidizing their kids’ unpaid lifestyles.

And we wonder why no one has money to spend in this economy – duh – if you are working for $0, you have nothing to spend!

Hustling (@ yyy: by the way, it’s not spelled “hussling”) by working a second job just covers up the problem. You’re all still training REAL employers to expect to pay you NOTHING.

Here’s a clue: you don’t have to take $0 to get experience – employers make a PROFIT from you, and pay you a share of that profit as pay – THAT’s a JOB. If they can’t figure out how to skim some profit from the result of your work – they FAIL as a business. THAT’S capitalism. The government knows employers will abuse free workers – that’s why there are laws to protect you – YOU need to file a complaint with the state to get your pay. YOU’RE PROTECTED – F’ING STAND UP AND USE IT, YO!

Lastly: LEARN to look for a job – it’s a SKILL, just like all the other classes you took. BUY a book and take a CLASS on it. STOP doing the lazy thing by getting the ‘rents to pay or working at BK – THE LAZY ROAD IS THE LOW ROAD, and we all know where that leads – downhill.


Becca Vela June 1, 2010 at 5:33 pm

Interesting posts. I was an unpaid intern for a very prestigious advertising agency. It was great experience and I made a lot of contacts. I also held down a part time job. So, I guess I don’t understand what the big deal is if you get experience, contacts, credit for school, or portfolio pieces.

As far as companies being immoral I don’t get that. Not all companies are immoral because they decide not to pay someone who is being trained to do a specific task.

Right now I’m in a position to hire employees as well as interns which we have paid, but unfortunately most of these interns do not know the job and need a lot of attention and nurturing which takes up a lot of time.

Just another point of view.


No Pay Playa August 25, 2010 at 6:24 am

Coffee errands, emails, and sorting tasks… no pay and a head shot? This guy is looking for a free sexetary… !!!

Architecture Intern (Playa Del Rey)
Date: 2010-08-19, 8:50AM PDT
Reply to: see below

Please read the entire posting before replying!

We are a small but fast growing firm located in Playa Del Rey. We specialize in high-end residential, high-end commercial, affordable housing and construction management.

We are currently looking for an architecture intern to assist architect on an almost daily basis. You don’t have to know everything about architecture, but you have to be passionate about architecture and are willing to learn. Since we do construction management, you will be learning a lot about construction. From time to time, you will be able to accompany the architect to the job site meetings and really see what goes on in real life. Our office is not a corporate environment and we are all very friendly and down-to-earth. We expect you to be the same.

Your job duties will include but not limited to:
-Assist Architect with emails
-Support staff when deadlines approach with necessary tasks (you should have a ‘all-can-do’ attitude)
-Organizing material library
-Some drafting and modeling and photoshopping
-Material boards
-Make coffee, running small errands

Please note that this is a non-paid internship, but we will sign off any school hours that you need. Also, depending on situation, you may be considered as a future employee if the firm grows bigger and we are growing even in this economy!

Please submit your resume with a cover letter telling us what you want to learn from this internship. Please also include on your cover letter a portrait of yourself. Please put “I am interested in the Position” in your subject line. If you are reading to this point, you are probably a potential candidate. No cover letter, no portrait, no subject line means no interview.

Please send required information to cwong(at)jsegandesign(dot)com. You can email me with questions, but be sure to put the appropriate info in the subject line! Please don?t attempt to call the office at all. Phone call means no interview. Everything will go through me and I am conducting the interview.

We are conducting interview the week of 13th of September, so this gives you plenty of time to put together your fabulous portfolio together.


Spud October 12, 2010 at 7:44 am

The unpaid internship, in MANY cases I have seen, IS being abused. One example, product design engineer with a 4 year degree working for an unscrupulous architectural firm running a laser cutting machine. After 3 months–no training, no money, and when the designer asked for a letter of reference, was told “no, we only give out reference letters for people who have interned for us for at least 6 months”. Another intern at same firm, who had worked there for over a year, finally quit after it became clear they were NEVER going to hire her full time.

This is the saddest thing I have seen since David Copperfield sheepishly asked the work-house’s boss if he could “please have some more soup sir”. These poor students work hard to earn a degree, can not find a job due to the economy, but can find PLENTY of unpaid internships (so there really are jobs out there, just employees too cheap to pay for the value added!!!). I say haul all these employees in for tax evasion! This is modern day slavery of the worst sort!!


theOverAcheiver October 29, 2012 at 3:44 am

I have done 4 internships, each for a max of 2 months and 2 of em are just 1 month. I have never fetched coffee, printed or scaned documents etc. etc. I HAVE got certificates for all of my work. I have learned LOADS. My boss in all internships took out time to train me, guide me etc. Its just how hard you look for an iternship, and once you land one how hard you are willing to work. FYI all were unpaid. But the amount i learnt i would be willing to pay them for the same. AND fyi they were all fortune 500 companies landed thru college :)

Just Saying. Stop complaining abut how unfair life is. or in this case how unpaid internships suck.


moderndayslavery November 1, 2010 at 4:19 pm

if someone has enough respect to donate their time to help another person profit, why can’t they show the same respect back by giving them what’s owed to them?

call city hall and find out for yourself what your rights are as an intern. even if you sign any contracts, it is still illegal to hire someone for the company’s profit and not pay them what they are owed. New York State laws clearly say that. The place that I intern hasn’t paid me even the minimum wage (their employees definitely start at a higher rate than that). They can even go back 6 years to investigate a claim.

now the problem is, do I contact my company about this first? should I try to see what their reaction is to the fact that I am about to file for an investigation? or should I do it now while I am still interning there since the investigation process will take a while?

My goal there as an intern is to be there for 1 year so that I can have that on my resume, or get offered a part time job there. whichever comes first. I have enquired about working there more than once, and I have barely made the money back that I have spent travelling to my internship for the time that i’ve been there (metrocards are getting expensive).

so is there advice anybody can offer on the two options I have given myself to take action?


Andrew March 7, 2011 at 1:53 am

why do you work there then? You don’t really “have enough respect to done your time to help someone else profit” you can’t honestly tell me that you wanted an internship to increase someone else’s bottom line. No, you got an internship because you wanted to get your foot in the door in that career field. if you have a low level of skill, the value of your labor may not even be worth the minimum wage (not saying you are unskilled just an example). If however, your acceptance of an internship was based on the employers claim that it was a definite pathway to employment and then they turned their back on you, that’s a different story, but it sounds like to me that you got an internship and are now asking for a job that was never promised to you, in which case that’s honestly your own mistake for assuming that. But above all, your headline of “moderndayslavery” is preposterous. A slave is forced to do his job for no pay. You are getting paid (all be it little), are getting experience, and most importantly can quit at any time if you are so outraged! this is the problem with today’s generation, we think everything is owed to us, and don’t understand that to get to the top, to be ambitious, you have to start out doing menial tasks for low pay and earn your way up, while being greatful you even have the opportunity to work and gain experience at all. Anything you want you have to earn, nothing is “owed to you” other than safe work conditions and whatever was legally put into an employment contract you signed.


Mike December 17, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Andrew, now I can’t speak on behalf of the person you replyed to. However, I can speak for myself.

I have had many internships. How many? Six, all of which were unpaid. One of them was even a full time internship, 40 hours a week unpaid. Did I get a job at any of them? No. Did I get experience and make connections. Yes. However, in the long run isn’t an internship supposed to lead to getting a job somewhere? I hope so, but so far I haven’t seen any light of day. I find it to be slave labor at a certain point because I have worked so many hours unpaid and as a whole I find it absolutely ridiculous. Many of my internships did not allow me to do anything so unless I asked questions, I did not learn from them. I can’t blame the companies for not hiring me if no position is available, which is often the case. However, I don’t find it fair when so many employees say they paid their time and got in when I have to and have not got in anywhere. Many employees do not tell interns that not only they have to prove themselves, but they have to prove themselves over all the other interns that work there. It is a competition. The employees do not also tell interns that it can take a couple of years before they ever get hired after the internship ends. Most of my internships were after I graduated. I realize many people intern while they are in college, but eventually I would figure employees would let past interns know about jobs if you keep in touch. So far no one really has. Perhaps I have horrible luck, but from my experience it is more then just paying your dues. It’s more about getting lucky and being at the right place at the right time I feel.


Galen April 14, 2012 at 1:02 am

“you have to start out doing menial tasks for low pay” I strongly disagree with this statement. Are you sture that is what you have to do? Perhaps that is your opinion of your current situation but I did not start with my company making coffee and filtering emails. The fact that you believe what you wrote is a testament that you don’t have faith in your abilities/education to satisfactorily perform or compete in the workplace. Do you really believe that you are adding anything to the workplace by working for grossly undervalued compensation or for free? In reference to your statement regarding the employment contract, what about federal law? Would that not trump any employment contract that you enter into with a company?


Ivan November 27, 2010 at 5:23 pm

I am not a fancy lawyer but every single internship violates statement #4 – if companies did not derive an advantage from the free work an intern performs, they would not have interns. Why would they? So the only way that these internships could be legal is if the courts have misinterpreted the phrase “derives no immediate advantage” to mean something completely different. I cannot imagine a situation where you do not derive an immediate advantage from someone performing free work for you.


Jessika March 26, 2011 at 10:05 am

The answer to number four is to not have the interns “work”. Number three seems to be addressing this concept as well. Now we have to address that fuzzy concept of “work”.


Elise December 11, 2010 at 7:31 pm

I had an internship in college and I made $16/hour (which I still think was GREAT pay.) I never would have worked for free-I’m barely middle class, when I perform labor I need cash for it! IMO, unpaid internships are comparable to slave labor.The company gets someone to work without having to compensate them. Perfect! My internship was nice but it did nothing for me in terms of finding employment upon graduation (I graduated in 2007, right when the recession was getting fun). Unpaid internships should be illegal period. Pay people who work for you, plan and simple.
I’ve seen ads for businesses lately offering unpaid internships. These are shady companies that are just regular run of the mill offices; not a real industry like entertainment, news reporting, or law. They are just trying to get free labor.


Andrew March 7, 2011 at 1:34 am

Whats wrong with the idea of an unpaid internship? I dont care about money I need experience so when i graduate i can get a good job. Both me and an “employer” understand that I’m not getting paid, and i fully accept that fact. I’m not being exploited. So if the only internship I can get is unpaid, I can at least get experience and the company gets “free” (but not really because they incur the cost of training me) labor. It’s win-win. This is the same argument for abolishing the minimum wage, that it’s better to be underpaid (or not at all but getting experience) than be out of the job completely.


Josh March 15, 2011 at 6:39 pm

While it is true a lot of employers take advantage of unpaid interns, I wouldn’t necessarily say all employers are trying to capitalize on free labor by hiring interns. I had a job that didn’t pay interns for specific roles until the intern was proven to be the right person for the job. They also hired a few of their interns and offered full time jobs when they graduated. Some jobs require a skill that needs to be tested. Best case scenario is that the intern brings something to the table and a career is potentially born, the company can grow, and everyone wins. Worst case scenario is if the intern doesn’t bring the goods that were presented on a resume and interview. The employer does not receive much benefit from a lousy, slow, poor attitude intern who wants to collect unemployment. The unpaid lousy employee gains a valuable learning experience to not sign up for a job they shouldn’t have in the first place. Not everyone has the right attitude or is the right fit for each job, and it costs employers a lot to cycle through people who lie on their resume just to get a paycheck.Perhaps unpaid internships can be better regulated, maybe by restricting the length of time or number of hours that someone may go unpaid.


Shane March 18, 2011 at 2:55 pm

I bet the folks that think asking to be paid for work (internship or not) is wrong, are also against the minimum wage and other “encumbrances” to free enterprise. The fundamental difference is that some of us have come to the conclusion that we do in fact need to protect ourselves from ourselves. To that extent we have things like Social Security, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, Minimum Education standards, etc… We also need to institute some base-line decency to protect lowest / most vulnerable workforce.. IE: the minimum wage, un-healthy labor practices, overtime etc. Some of the worst offenders are the companies that ask for interns that are “recent” college grads… Now that takes some nerve, really.


Mike Caha May 23, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Very thorough and insightful article! About 10 months ago I called my state’s Department of Labor offices to discuss this very issue with them. Two highlights stand out from that conversation: 1) the internship must be an “apprenticeship” for it to be unpaid (i.e. the intern must be learning something useful) and 2) the interns cannot be paid as subcontractors (I know this one’s a bit off topic, but relevant nevertheless).


Jaime June 1, 2011 at 8:58 am

I’ve had three unpaid internships and the connections and experience I’ve gained have been well worth it. However, I don’t think it would have been possible if I were in a different financial situation. I think that companies that offer paid internships should take economic standing into consideration and offer paid internships to the financially disadvantaged.

On another note, there’s an interesting, brief video NY Creative Interns made that breaks the 6 requirements down for you.


Phigit June 3, 2011 at 2:18 am

As a small business employer who is considering interns, this discussion identified how complex the issue can be. In some jurisdictions around the world, they would be illegal in some circumstances. I have seen many interns get extremely valuable experience when I worked at larger businesses, but I am not sure about with smaller businesses. As a small business I can see the value a good intern may bring, but it is not possible to guarantee a job even if they do a superb job.


Laura August 17, 2011 at 8:05 am

I agree with a lot of comments above. I am finishing up an internship in the sports and entertainment marketing industry. Originally from Alabama, I traveled to Chicago to participate in an unpaid internship and survived with early graduation money. This internship = big mistake. I’ve done nothing but organize their completely unorganized company and created valuable organizational tools from scratch, created marketing videos as no one else in the office can edit video. I strongly believe that they have benifited highly off of skills I received outside of their company, and have given me back 0 skills, 0 contacts, and 0 experience in return. Also, along with all of the work I’m putting in (40 hours a week) I can count how many times I’ve been told “thank you” and shown appreciation even less than that. I just don’t see how some people can sleep at night.


Brian September 2, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I have heard all about the rights of the employers and the rights of the interns but I haven’t heard one word about the rights of people who are currently looking for a real job. With all of the talk of needing jobs, I am amazed that the practice of the unpaid internship is still around. I don’t blame the students one bit for trying to get their foot in the door and I don’t blame companies for trying to get an edge on their competition with the free labor and the benefit of filling the gaps left by summer vacationing employees.
Personally, I dread the legions of free workers coming thru our plant every spring knowing that real people will not be hired even though I know we can afford it.
I think the laws need to be tightened up to protect the jobless in this country.


Sofie August 31, 2012 at 12:01 am

An internship is what you make of it. It is all about making connections and relationships with the people that you work with as well as networking within the industry itself. If you don’t feel you are getting what you want out of the internship, then talk to the internship coordinator or someone else that you can confide in and tell them your concern. Some of the small tasks will teach you something in the long run. For instance, at a small PR firm them may have you research media contacts or pitch a product to a magazine. Okay, now this may seem stupid and something you think the account executive should do right…but now when you interview for an actual job you can tell them “Hey, I know how to Pitch product.” Or since you know how to find media contacts and verify them…you can say you have a list of contacts.

Remember they are also testing you. As an employee you always have to create tasks for yourself to stay relevant…you can’t always wait around. If you do, your job will either be eliminated or someone else could easily take it from you…like an eager intern.

Also, if you hate your internship…quit! It’s clear that everyone who complained about an unpaid internship on here…if they were paid, you would just complain how under paid you were. So if you really hate it, LEAVE. It’s not going to change.


Jonathan October 9, 2012 at 3:34 am

I am with Laura on this one, I undertook a part time placement not so long ago, and they offered me zero experience in return. They asked me to list what I was really good at, then left me alone to get on with menial work, allowing me to make no contacts, get no experience and all for free. I created a spreadsheet that allowed an automated follow-up system for them, and again, when I left, nothing but a friendly handshake.

Companies who do no pay interns are often abusing a graduate pool that is struggling to get a job. Even if they offer travel and lunch, it shows to some extent they appreciate what you are doing. Have a look around, your time is worth more than nothing!


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