Lawsuits at the national level over the past year are bringing the unpaid internship experience into question.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, it is only legal for an intern to go unpaid in an educational training context so long as the interns are not performing productive work and the employer derives no benefit.
“If the employer would have hired additional employees or required existing staff to work additional hours had the interns not performed the work, then the interns will be viewed as employees and entitled to compensation under the FLSA,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division.
Last year, two former Conde Nast interns filed a lawsuit against the publishing company because it failed to pay interns minimum wage. The interns claimed to have been paid less than $1 an hour for their work. As of 2014, Conde Nast will no longer offer internships.
This was only one of several lawsuits filed. In June 2013, the New York federal district court ruled that unpaid interns at Fox Searchlight pictures working on the movie “Black Swan” were employees subject to compensation for their work according to the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Then again in July 2013 the southern district court of New York ruled against NBC Universal because former interns were again unpaid for their labor.
Program coordinator for the BYU Internship Office Adrianne Chamberlain said it is up to the student and their internship coordinator to determine if the internship is appropriate for the student and that it is up to the employer to make sure they follow the Department of Labor’s criteria for unpaid internships.
Program internship coordinator for the Marriott School of Business James Morris said they make sure students are not exploited at their internships through a thorough employment screening.
“We’ve had a few cases where we’ve had internships offered to students from companies that had fired people to replace them with our students,” Morris said. “We avoid that by checking job descriptions and checking with the employer through various documents we have. It is all in the beginning process and through the application that we determine whether they are complying with the laws.”
Morris said interns are also required to answer weekly questions about how many hours they worked and also to answer questions throughout the internship to make sure everyone is in compliance.
“We are also very tight with international students. For example, we had international students interning with the (LDS) Church in the statistical department looking at test results that seminary students around the world take,” he said. “They were taking Marriott School students to do these reports, and now we can’t allow students to do that.”
Despite a lack of university-wide numbers of how many students do unpaid versus paid internships, a large portion of BYU students are still willing to sacrifice compensation for experience.
Director of the Washington Seminar Scott Dunaway said in 2013, 69 percent of students in the program did unpaid internships. The Washington Seminar provides students from every academic discipline an opportunity to gain professional experience at the nation’s capital, according to the Washington Seminar website.
Also more than 40 percent of BYU communication majors do unpaid internships, according to internship coordinator Natalie Chambers.
Michael O’Bryant is one student who spent his weekdays last semester breaking hearts calling for overdue medical bills and weekends mending them as an intern at the cardiology unit at Utah Valley Hospital.
The 23-year-old BYU exercise science major worked nearly 80 hours per week last semester, dividing his time as a full-time student, part-time employee and as an unpaid intern.
He said an internship offered real-world responsibility, so he willingly dedicated his time to both funding his education and to gaining professional experience.
“I wanted to keep working to keep the money coming in every month,” O’Bryant said. “I wanted to do an internship because it was interesting and it was a good résumé builder.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) offers unpaid internships through the Washington Seminar in his Provo and Washington, D.C., offices that follow legal regulation.
Justin Harding, Chaffetz’s chief of staff, said the representative’s office provides interns with individual mentors and training sessions along with opportunities for hands-on experience.
“We value our interns because they are the future members of our staff,” Harding said.
He said the interns function as a part of the staff and are able to get a personal view of how the legislative process works.
For students like O’Bryant, the opportunity to intern where their future career path will go is one priceless cost. It can shape career paths.
Harding interned at Capitol Hill as a student. He said his experience helped lead to his success and current job as Chaffetz’s chief of staff.
“My internship changed the trajectory of my professional life,” he said. “An internship has the prospect to do that for any student, regardless of their major.”
However, the cost of an unpaid internship may not be worth the sacrifice.
A survey of more than 92,00 seniors over the course of three years by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) discovered that 63.1 percent of graduating seniors who had a paid internship received at least one job offer. But only 38 percent of students who worked as unpaid interns were offered employment.
Another poll by Intern Bridge revealed that 17 percent of unpaid interns did not receive a job, while 36 percent of paid students did. The survey included seniors, juniors and sophomores, unlike the NACE study, which only looked at seniors.
But many BYU departments, including communications, nursing, business and education, require an internship for graduation and even require students to pay for their credits, so an unpaid internship may be the only way to go for some. Options for students include available scholarships, but for others the only option is to work, study and intern.