NYU Students Create Petition To Remove Unpaid Internship Postings On CareerNet

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.


    Share Your Thoughts


  1. Jim K says

    The headline is confusing and possibly misleading. Is Isnardi fighting all unpaid internships, or just those that are illegal?

    I was sure that I wanted to be a photojournalist until I took an unpaid internship at a local newspaper last summer. Actually working in the field and gaining that experiential knowledge made me realize that I would be miserable doing that to make a living. I essentially restructured my education because of that one internship (this has been a real pain in my keister, but a good thing overall).

    That being said, my internship clearly met all of the six criteria listed above. I had found it on a different site (Ed2010 I think) because so much of what Wasserman offerred seemed sketchy and illegitimate.

    Essentially, unpaid internships can be a great thing even if they don’t turn out to be that first rung up the ladder, and it would be imprudent to get rid of all of them. But illegal internships are definitely a problem, and Wasserman really does need to step up their screening game.

  2. Hanna Armour says

    @Jim: I can see how the headline can be confusing, however, this article is directed at unpaid internships that do not meet the six criteria found in the Fair Labor Standards Act. And I definitely agree that unpaid internships can lead you to finding out what you don’t want to do as well–that being said, you just need to make sure even if you know that isn’t the field you want to go into, that you aren’t being exploited or used for free labor while still at that internship. The main point here is if your internship doesn’t meet the six criteria–quit or demand your entitled amount of pay.

  3. Christina Isnardi says

    @Jim: As written on the petition, this campaign is aimed at specifically removing unpaid internships at for-profit companies that violate the 6 criteria listed above. There are plenty of unpaid internships that are legal and legitimate on CareerNet (such as for non-profit, or for for-profit internships that abide by the labor laws).

    So, this petition is not to remove all unpaid internships. Just the illegal ones.

  4. stuart h. says

    Let’s pretend your family lives paycheck to paycheck, and you are in college only because of a free-ride. Now you want to be a photographer like you. How do you get to “know” the field? You can’t afford to even live a week without a job. How is that fair?

  5. Chris Miller says

    This article has the right intentions, but exposes an obvious misunderstanding of the economic impact of unpaid interns, legal or otherwise.


    The above article explains it in fairly basic terms.

    Essentially, it is not fair. But that’s why many people work wage jobs in addition to intern and attend school. Life’s unfair, sooner or later, we all must come to terms with this.

    Removing “illegal” unpaid internships won’t solve this. They will simply be given to students at other schools who see their value.

    If you want to truly eliminate the illicit unpaid internship as we know it, it must be done in a courtroom. Removing this internships from Wasserman only deprives students who can afford them opportunities to pad their resumes.

    There are a ton of paid internships out there. No one is forcing you to take an unpaid one.

  6. Leigh Anderson says

    Hey there, NYU alumnus and current intern-hirer here. I applaud your efforts of trying to flush out all the crappy companies that don’t have money to pay staff and just stand up and say, “I know! Our answer is interns!” However, I think that instead of blaming adults and schools for not sheltering you from a horrid experience, students need to take some responsibility here. Yes, the school should screen companies for legitimacy. Yes, your ADVISOR should take the time to vet the internship once you’ve applied. But at the end of the day YOU are responsible for finding the best opportunity for you.

    While at NYU I interned at two different national magazines. One I found through Wasserman and the other I found because my professor suggested it. Both of them were totally legit. I did a lot of grunt work, but I found tasks and created responsibilities for myself that not only helped me learn more about the industry, but that helped the companies I was interning for. Showing that kind of initiative is what makes it more likely to get a job there, not whether you’re paid or not. You know what else helps you land a job at the place you’re interning? If it’s a large company, a company that has lots of financial backers, a company that has a new thing that no one else has. Indy film studios are typically not those places. Neither are print publications post 9/11.

    I look at all six of these requirements every semester to make sure the company I work for (a free alt-weekly newspaper) is not taking advantage of students. I can guarantee that all the interns in here are learning things, whether journalism, PR, photography, or marketing is their major, yet I have come under fire by newly-formed “legal” organizations who have read that same book you did (OK, these have been arguments on Twitter) whose members feel that all unpaid internships are illegal (as your headline implies). We hire many of our interns, even though in our industry it’s on a part-time or freelance basis. We don’t hire the crappy ones.

    My advice to you – do your own research. Take responsibility. Don’t blame the school. Decide what’s more important – learning what you crave or getting a pay check. Sometimes you have to make those decisions.

  7. Christina Isnardi says

    I agree, students are the ones that are perpetuating the process by taking these unpaid internships that violate the FLSA. But the school is also promoting them, making no distinction between the valid and lawfully-sound internships and the illegal internships posted on the site. Students can easily take these illegal internships not knowing their rights and can be exploited. So by posting these illegal unpaid internships, the school is perpetuating this problem.

    But again, students, teachers, parents, schools, and companies all share some blame for this problem. In order to reduce labor exploitation, all groups must work towards this goal.

    As a young professional, I take responsibility for the internships I apply for, and I will not be applying for illegal internships. At this point, I can only educate other students about how they are continuing their own exploitation by taking these illegal internships, and I can only hope that they will not apply for them. Also, as a student of this institution, I have responsibility to see that my school is promoting my and my peers’ best interests. When my school is advertising companies that are violating federal labor laws and exploiting me and my peers, I need to exercise my influence and do anything I can to stop this corrupt practice.

  8. Christina Isnardi says

    @Chris, if successful, yes this campaign would require students who can afford and who wish to apply for unpaid internships that violate the FLSA to do so outside of the school. The school has no right to promote something that is illegal and may exploit their students, and should not take a part of this process.

  9. Maureen Sagan says

    How is working an unpaid internship any different than volunteering? Either way it’s a good experience. If you don’t want an unpaid internship, don’t get one, but no point taking it off of CareerNet when other students do.

  10. Jim K says

    @ Stuart

    “Now you want to be a photographer like you.”

    “How do you get to “know” the field? You can’t afford to even live a week without a job. How is that fair?”
    Actually I worked two part-time jobs in addition to the internship so that I’d have money. Sometimes it’s worth 50-60 hour work weeks to do what you want to do.

  11. Peter D says

    To the people arguing that illegal unpaid internships should continue to be advertised, please present an argument against a mandated minimum wage. Why shouldn’t people be allowed to make their own decisions to work below minimum wage (or work unpaid)? Because it’s exploitative AND would drive down wages across the board.

  12. Peter D says

    For the people trying to defend the practice of not paying people that are working in your company and trying to put the onus on students, try to imagine your argument used against a mandated minimum wage. We did not have any in the US until the 20th century. Theoretically workers were able to avoid any job that didn’t pay high enough wages, but because there was a big enough demand for work, companies across the board could keep wages low.

    That is what is happening with unpaid internships in many fields. Demand is high enough to sustain a permanent class of individuals working what used to be entry-level jobs for no pay, effectively squeezing a few months to a year’s worth of free work out of individuals before they can start getting paid. At best. you are limiting the diversity of a variety of fields. At worst, you are cutting out an entire sector’s earning power out from under them.

  13. Jessica Drivas says

    I think CareerNet is a joke, as is Wasserman. My friends at other schools that have much lower rankings have career centers that reach out to specific internships on behalf of the student. When I went to Wasserman for internship help, they said to just look at CareerNet, where half of the internships I applied for were scams.

    Also, why doesn’t NYU put more effort into securing PAID internships for its students? Credit internships are a complete joke, especially if your department does not put those internships towards major requirements like the journalism institute. Why should we have to pay NYU tuition for doing work for someone else?

    That being said, I had an amazing internship in the city where I received a stipend that basically covered my subway fare. I loved it and felt it was worth it. If I had chosen to stay, I would have been on the track to employment, unlike my friends at credit internships who were dropped the second the internship ended.

    Basically, this is just another example of how little NYU cares about its students and how all they care about is making a profit.

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