Will work for free: questioning the legality of working without wages

With the job market strained and vulnerable due to the current recession, the increase in unpaid internships has caused the U.S. Department of Labor and states such as Oregon and California to question the legality of students working without wages. Internships have long been a “mainstay” for students who trade receiving a paycheck for work experience and college credit, according to Time Magazine.

Some, like Philadelphia workplace attorney Robin Bond, feel companies using the free labor of college students is a sign of our failing economy.

“You know the old Depression-era signs, ‘I’ll work for food’?” Bond asked Time Magazine, “Well, now they say, ‘I’ll work for free.'”

Recently, Nancy J. Leppink, acting director of the Department of Labor’s wage and hour division told The New York Times that most for-profit companies don’t meet the criteria for having unpaid internships.

“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” said Leppink.

The Department of Labor warned that they plan on enforcing labor laws if companies continue failing to comply with the six-point criteria that must be adhered to when for-profit companies hire interns.

These criteria, established by the Department of Labor, stipulate that companies taking on an unpaid intern can “derive no immediate advantage from the activities of the student.” However, as Guilford’s Assistant Dean for Career and Community Learning Irene Harrington explains, this stipulation may be interpreted to mean that an “intern can not displace a regular employee,” leaving other forms of exploitation unaccounted for.

Camille A. Olson, a lawyer based in Chicago who represents many employers, told The New York Times, “One criterion that is hard to meet and needs updating is that the interns do not perform any work to the immediate advantage of the employer. In my experience, many employers agreed to hire interns because there is very strong mutual advantage to both the worker and the employer. There should be a mutual benefit test.”

According to analysts for the Washington Post, however, due to the vagueness of the Department of Labor’s warnings, there will probably be no immediate decline in unpaid internships.

Students like Community Senate President Nancy Klosteridis, a senior, just want security as they look to enter the workforce. “I want to be stable but overall happy and I will find a way to do that,” related Klosteridis.

Guilford will address this emerging employment issue through the Strategic Long Range Plan II (SLRP II), which is currently in its draft phase. The plan centers on student outcomes and addresses the importance of establishing career-building networks for graduates.

Jeff Favolise, assistant to the president for planning and management, said that the SLRP II, which will guide Guilford for the next five years, will focus on positive student outcomes, including employment.

“We want students to be ready for gainful employment on day one,” said Favolise.