Each year, our nation’s colleges produce 1.8 million new graduates holding bachelor’s degrees. And, as anyone who’s looked into getting a job recently will know, the first stepping stone towards adult life is often an internship, and many of those positions are unpaid. Data on internships, whether paid or unpaid is thin, but a 2008 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that half of grads were landing in internships. That’s up from a mere 17% back in the early 1990s.
Some estimates on the number of internships that are unpaid put the amount between a quarter and half of all internships, though again, the data is a few years old, and anecdotal data suggests that it’s more likely around 75% -- a safe assumption if we include internships paid less than minimum wage. So, we’re looking at a number close to 700,000 recent college graduates working for free, or for less than minimum wage.
If you know much about law and much about minimum wage, a lightbulb will probably go off in your head. “Hey, isn’t there some sort of minimum wage law? What’s that about?”
It’s actually a surprisingly rare question, despite being so obvious, and with minimum wage being a frequent topic of debate on the national stage. If you have an employee, you have to pay them. The law does not have an “except if you call them an intern” exception. Nor does it have an “except if they get college credit” exception, as is commonly believed. The actual internship exception is quite complicated, and subject to a six-part test:
1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
Being a robot, I pick up on how your puny human brains tend to process arguments. “You did benefit!” “You knew you weren’t going to get hired!” “You agreed you wouldn’t get paid!” “You knew what you were getting in to!” “All those things I just said, so QED, no problem!”
Those of you who’ve been in a law school that requires you to read at least one statute at any point will know exactly what to look for in these requirements. Is it a balancing test? No. There’s a little word at the end of requirement #5 that makes all the difference: And.
You must meet every single one of those requirements for your internship to be legal. Two out of six isn’t good enough. Five out of six isn’t good enough. Knowing what you were agreeing to and getting valuable experience isn’t good enough. Course credit isn’t even mentioned.
For most internships, #3 and #4 are going to not even be close. Interns regularly do jobs that would otherwise have been filled by a paid employee. You’re learning on the job, and that is precisely what internships are not meant to be. That’s what entry level employment is supposed to be, and the law requires that you pay your junior staff. Internships aren’t learning on the job, they’re learning in a work environment. At least, that’s the impression left by the rules, and the handy explanatory language titled “Similar to an Education Environment and the Primary Beneficiary of the Activity:”
In general, the more an internship program is structured around a classroom or academic experience as opposed to the employer’s actual operations, the more likely the internship will be viewed as an extension of the individual’s educational experience (this often occurs where a college or university exercises oversight over the internship program and provides educational credit). The more the internship provides the individual with skills that can be used in multiple employment settings, as opposed to skills particular to one employer’s operation, the more likely the intern would be viewed as receiving training. Under these circumstances the intern does not perform the routine work of the business on a regular and recurring basis, and the business is not dependent upon the work of the intern. On the other hand, if the interns are engaged in the operations of the employer or are performing productive work (for example, filing, performing other clerical work, or assisting customers), then the fact that they may be receiving some benefits in the form of a new skill or improved work habits will not exclude them from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements because the employer benefits from the interns’ work.
So why am I writing about this?
Because a lot of people out there keep droning on about how illegal immigrants (and even legal ones) are suppressing wages. Avocado picking just isn’t the cash cow it used to be, apparently. But if you really want to see who’s driving down wages, look at college kids. Roughly 700,000 college grads working below the minimum wage line, and if you include current college students, as well as graduates with associates, masters, doctorates or professional degrees, it’s likely the number swells to around 1.5 or 2 million people. And they’re not working the jobs Americans don’t want to do. They are Americans, and they’re working exactly the type of job you expect of a college graduate.
Illegal immigrants might bring down the wages of unskilled farming and low level service industry jobs, but its educated American kids dragging down the wages for the white collar middle class.
I wanted to say it’s the employers who are driving down the wages, rather than the college kids, but “employers” isn’t exactly accurate in this context, and I don’t have another word to use, so I’m just going to stick it on the kids. Besides, I’m sure there’s some shitboomer logic to explain how the fact that they can’t get federally mandated pay is there fault. Probably has something to do with their entitlement mindset. Damn kids.