Should Unpaid Internships Be Illegal?


Have you ever been an unpaid intern? I have — for a few semesters, actually. Despite the fact that I walked away with some great experiences, I also walked away without monetary compensation for any of the time, energy, and work I put into each position. I actually had to spend money just to have the internship, since I had to attend events, drive to and from the companies, and then dedicate at least 9 hours per week to each position. It was pretty challenging at times.

But unpaid interns are fighting back against this thing that has become expected of many college students. Across the U.S., many are filing lawsuits against the entertainment and media companies for which they worked. Just last month, suits have been filed against Gawker, Warner Music Group, and Conde Nast, according to The Wrap.

This comes after Fox Searchlight was ordered to pay two unpaid interns for their work on the film “Black Swan” because a judge said they were essentially regular employees, and deserved to be paid as such.

I can’t really blame any of these interns for seeking compensation for their work. I mean, how fair is it for companies to “hire” interns to do work that furthers their company, while citing that the “experience” and (sometimes) college credit is good enough? Is it fair to students, who need money just as much as the rest of the world to do unpaid work — especially when things like minimum wage exist? And how about young people who don’t have a spare 15 hours per week? Don’t they, too, deserve the experience of an internship? Is it fair for companies to replace the recent college grads they might have hired for pay with college students who are willing to do the same job for “the experience”?

The short answer: it’s not. At least I don’t think so.

As  much as people will say experience is invaluable, it can’t pay for rent, college books, classes, or even for basic necessities, like food.

I was an unpaid intern in college for four semesters, racking up a total of 720 hours worked… without pay. I loved my internships, though — I wasn’t making coffee for people nor was I saddled with busy work. I did actual work, gained real experience, and made some amazing connections (one of which ended up leading to a full-time job). I loved all of my mentors, I loved what I did, and, given the opportunity, I would do any of those internships all over again.

In that time, here are few things I did (without credit – my name was not attached to the work I did)

  • promoted author events on my college campus for fall 2008
  • designed and printed (at a real print shop!) several charity campaigns for campus events
  • created an entire marketing campaign including posters, postcards, and programs for the biggest creative writing-related event on campus that semester
  • created e-newsletter and in-house literature content for upcoming art exhibitions at a local art museum
  • helped organize an art gala

Thankfully, my name was attached to:

  • the weekly family events articles I compiled for a local newspaper
  • several arts Q & As I conducted, transcribed, and wrote
  • local restaurant reviews
  • features and arts articles

However, I wasn’t paid for any of that work. Here’s what I could have earned during my time:

Marketing Intern, college’s Creative Writing Dept.

When: Fall 2008

Hours worked weekly: 9 hours a week, for 15 weeks

Minimum wage (in Connecticut, at the time): $7.65

What I could have earned: $1,032.75

Content Development Intern, local art museum

When: Spring 2009

Hours worked: 9 hours a week, for 15 weeks

Minimum wage: $8.00

What I could have earned: $1,080.00

Reporter Intern, local newspaper

When: Fall 2009, Spring 2010

Weeks worked: 15 hours, for 30 weeks

Minimum wage: $8.00; $8.25

What I could have earned: $3,656.25

Grand total

Income I missed out on: $5,769.00

In the grand scheme of things, less than $6,000 may not seem like very much (although I doubt anyone would turn down that chunk of change were it offered to them).

To a college kid in massive amounts of debt, it’s everything.

I was in college on a full scholarship, so I was fortunate enough only to have graduated with around $10,000 in debt. With the amount of money I would have earned from my time as an intern, I could have paid off more than half of my student loans. Instead, I spent my summer post-graduation fretting over no callbacks, no job prospects, and my loans’ rapidly approaching six-month “grace period.”

Truthfully, I was lucky to be able to do those internships for free in the first place. I was lucky that I had any free time during the week to devote to these companies. I was lucky that I was able to gain those experiences, and that it fleshed out my resume.

But not everyone is that lucky. And I don’t blame the unpaid interns of today for asking for compensation for their work, however small. Times are difficult, and unpaid internships seem to wade into a moral gray area. I’d be totally fine if no one had to work another unpaid internship again, ever.

What do you think? Have you ever worked an unpaid internship? Do you think those who do deserve to be paid — or should we just be grateful for the experience?


4 responses to “Should Unpaid Internships Be Illegal?

  1. Yeah.. I worked 60-80 weeks one summer, at an organization that shall remain nameless –because I do love it dearly– no pay, I even slept in the office a couple of times to get an early start on a SUNDAY morning. The President & CEO, who is in fact an asshole, said we were all going to heaven for giving our time. Meanwhile he got a 25% increase in his salary making it a whopping 1.25 million.


  2. This is so fascinating that all of this is happening all of a sudden….I completely agree with the judge’s ruling; if what the intern provides is more than what the company gives back in education, then they should DEFINITELY get paid. Love this article!


  3. Both of my internships were unpaid. For one of them, I did so much work that all I could think about was “why am I not getting paid for this?” The other intership gave me no work to do at all and I was bored out of my mind, even when I reached out to ask for things to do. In that particular instance, I was better off just not working the internship at all as I got no experience anyways, and I didn’t deserve to be paid. Internships are a funny thing…


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