As the pressure to get an internship for the summer pushes down upon NYU students, the number of unpaid internship opportunities that are popping up on NYU Wasserman’s CareerNet are increasing. And because our society now holds internships as the gateway to a “real” job after graduation, we often cave to what many see as free labor.
Fed up with her own trials and tribulations in the interning world, NYU Tisch sophomore Christina Isnardi (along with CAS sophomore Rachel Whitbeck) took it upon herself to bring an end to these illegal internship postings–and to potentially help end the practice of illegal internships in the United States. The two started a petition to “remove postings of illegal, exploitative unpaid internships from CareerNet,” and we sat down with them to get the full story.
NYU Local: What sparked your interest in going after Wasserman’s internship postings?
Christina Isnardi: I experienced firsthand an internship posting through the Wasserman center. I was a freshman and I didn’t know my rights at the time as an intern. It was a film editor internship for a local production company. And when I got to the place, it was extremely illegitimate and exploitative. My employer–he basically used me for free labor. He didn’t even know how to use the editing software, he just knew that I was a student in film that would know how to work with the software. He said that this internship was “educational in the sense that I teach myself.” Obviously not all internships are like this but I know that there are still currently plenty of internship postings, just like that one, that are waiting for students to apply and companies are waiting to use them for free labor. [For example], I had a friend who had to wash dishes for a film company.
What is it that pushed you to make the petition?
I was doing some research on [interning] and I read “Intern Nation” by Ross Perlin. The book basically exposed me to this huge, corrupt system of illegal, unpaid internships. It opened my eyes to how huge of a problem this is. Also how accepted [this practice] is, not only by companies but by schools, parents, teachers, and students. [Another reason for this petition is] I have friends who can’t afford to have unpaid internships because they can’t spend a summer working for free. Unpaid internships are also a huge gender issue–77% of unpaid interns are women while more of the paid positions go to men (NACE). In this day and age, we have a huge gender income gap–where women make 78 cents every dollar a man makes. That [issue] could possibly start with the first rung of the ladder to get to employment–interning. It’s also a legal issue because unpaid interns aren’t covered under the civil rights act as they aren’t considered employees. And so they can be freely discriminated against and harassed [because] they don’t have any standing in court against the company. So when I found out about all these issues, and that no one is really doing anything about it, I decided that I could take a stand, and NYU as a university could take a stand, and hopefully, other schools would follow.
What are some tips that you have for students who are going to be using Wasserman to find an internship?
Students have to know their rights as interns. If you work for a for-profit company and if you do anything that benefits the employer–you are entitled to pay. Take a look at the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was set up by Supreme Court and the Department of Labor, and read the six criteria listed that an employer must meet in order to have an unpaid internship program:
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.
If it’s for-profit than those are the criteria that the employers must meet or the intern is entitled to pay. If it’s for a non-profit it gets a little iffy because it could be considered for humanitarian purposes, and therefore a volunteer position. Unfortunately, for interns working at a non-profit, it’s pretty much legal for them to use you as an employee. So take a look at the laws that currently exist, and see if the internship is lawfully sound [before you apply].
When you reached out to Wasserman, how did they respond?
I thought that they were very sympathetic to this cause because they obviously don’t want their students to be exploited and used as free labor. They have been doing their best to screen as many employers as possible but there’s still plenty of illegal unpaid internships that are on CareerNet. You can tell by the descriptions–if it’s for a for profit and the description and it seems similar to that of an employee then you should be getting paid for it. They said “we agree that non-legitimate arrangements are both unethical and possibly illegal [and that] we should take this opportunity to discuss this matter as a university community.” The Wasserman Center should not be advertising something that is illegal. They must promote the best interests for their students. If students want to seek illegal internships, they should do that on their own accord–the Wasserman Center should not be involved in that process.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know?
I’m just excited because this is the first campus-wide campaign, to my knowledge, against illegal unpaid internships and if this is successful, and we take a stand against the corrupt [postings], as students we could potentially take down the system. It’s students who are the ones who are exploiting themselves by [continuously] getting these internships.
Students often say that by having these unpaid internships, it’s a way to break out into the field [of work they want to go into]. But what no one really talks about is that if you are an unpaid intern, your employer doesn’t value you as much as he or she would if you were paid. So actually, if you have an unpaid internship at a company that is supposed to be paying you, your likelihood of getting a job is only 1% higher than someone who has never worked at that company before. However, if you were paid at that same company, for doing that same job, you will have a sixty percent advantage (NACE). So by forcing these companies to pay their interns, even minimum wage, it almost doubles their chance of getting a job. The way the system is set up now, it bars a lot of people from achieving the “American Dream,” when they should be getting paid to begin with. Women and minority groups, or anyone with an economic disadvantage, are entitled to get paid. If we use internships as a way to break out into our careers, and some people are denied from even getting their first job, it then stratifies the job hierarchy–which then affects the rest of society.
There’s this myth out there, that if you get credit for your internship, that that means it’s legal–but that is just a myth, it’s untrue. If that internship violates the six criteria, then you are still entitled to your pay. And if your employer doesn’t pay you, then you’re basically paying the university to be exploited. If you’re paying to work for free, you are also entitled to your rights.
If you want to sign the petition, click here.