More companies turn to unpaid internships

BY SAM LANE | APRIL 08, 2010 7:30 AM

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On top of a summer course and her waitressing stint, University of Iowa junior Lani Salzman took on another job last summer — an unpaid internship.

“With this economy, I was grateful just to have an internship,” said Salzman, who interned for the Institute of Real Estate Management.

And students similar to Salzman are filling a growing number of unpaid internship positions nationwide, something that’s concerning some labor officials.

The economy is partly to blame, said Allan Boettger, the director of Employer Relations and Events at the UI Pomerantz Center.

Many companies that once offered paid internships but have since laid off employees, might begin to feel uncomfortable paying their interns, he said.

That trend has prompted some federal officials to begin ensuring unpaid internships are educationally valuable to students.

The U.S. Department of Labor is working to make sure companies know if they’re required to pay interns and increasing the enforcement of labor laws for internships, according to a recent report in the New York Times.

For unpaid work to legally comply with the department’s Fair Labor Standards Act, businesses must meet certain criteria. Unpaid interns can’t replace regular employees, and the job must offer them either vocational or academic education, among other stipulations.

If a company’s internship program doesn’t meet these criteria, it’s required by law to pay employees minimum wage as well as time-and-a-half for overtime hours.

These are fail-safes that, if not met, should be red flags for students, said a Labor Department spokeswoman, who asked she not be named.

Though the department investigates any claims of mistreatment, students should research businesses before accepting an internship, the spokeswoman said.

The Labor Department also suggests that colleges and universities monitor and seek feedback from their students, and they should not promote non-meaningful internships from employers that don’t comply with the law.

In 2009, 59 percent of internships offered by the UI Pomerantz Center were unpaid, said Garry Klein, the center’s director of program assessment and research. That’s up from a 49 percent average from 2006 to 2008.

The Pomerantz Career Center has ways of combating potential problems with internships.

For an internship to be touted to UI students, it must meet certain requirements relating to hours worked and educational standards, among others.

The center also screens companies, checking such aspects as contact information and the company’s website to confirm its legitimacy. Students are also asked to evaluate their internships upon completion.

“We want to make sure the students are getting quality experience,” said Angi McKie, the director of marketing and public relations at the Pomerantz Center.

During their internship searches, both Salzman and UI senior Stephanie Boyle said they weren’t concerned about their potential employers, and they had gratifying experiences.

“Working in the actual business environment is better than learning something in a text book,” Salzman said.

Boyle, who worked as a paid intern at an event-planning company in Illinois, said she would have taken the position regardless.

“Even if it was unpaid, I think it would be good experience,” Boyle said.

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