Over the next couple of weeks, about 20 million college students across the U.S. will take their last exam or hand in their final paper, rejoicing that summer vacation has arrived.
Never mind that summer doesn’t officially start until June 21. Spring classes will be over, and for a lucky few, that means the return of leisure time. However, for millions of others, it means an opportunity to bolster their resume and find a summer job, and for those seeking summer internships, there is good news from the federal government.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) earlier this year announced a major change in its rules governing internships. Now, more private sector job providers can provide the kind of real world work experience college students got in years past through unpaid internships.
For those who missed a column written last summer about how unpaid internships had virtually vanished from the private sector in recent years, a little background is in order.
In 2010, President Obama’s DOL changed the rules for what kinds of internships could be offered by private employers. The agency argued that students who work in the private sector should be paid for their efforts. Undoubtedly, the policymakers who wrote these rules believed they were righting a wrong, standing up for the "little guy."
It would be the end of forced labor otherwise known as unpaid internships!
Under their rules, unpaid internships in the private sector would be allowed only if six criteria were met. One of the criteria stated that the employer could derive "no immediate advantage" from the intern. That was virtually impossible for anyone providing an internship to prove, however, so some enterprising unpaid interns decided to take legal action.
Television personality Charlie Rose was sued by some former unpaid interns and wound up having to pay them up to a quarter of a million dollars. Then, Harper’s magazine was also sued. Word started to get around, and very quickly, unpaid internships started to vanish.
The first casualties were in the "glamour" industries like movies and publishing where unpaid internships had become standard. Publisher Conde Nast was one of the biggest companies to end its intern program.
On the advice of legal counsel, many other employers followed.
Steve Slattery, executive vice president of The Fund for American Studies, an educational non-profit organization that has placed thousands of students in Washington D.C. internships since 1967, said "many of the most prestigious entities have dropped their unpaid internship programs after years of enthusiastic participation."
It seems that the policymakers at the DOL failed to understand, or chose to ignore, the fact that many employers who provided unpaid internships actually couldn’t afford to pay for those interns. So, unable to pay, they simply terminated the intern programs.
The students who were supposed to benefit from being paid were instead losing valuable opportunities to make contacts in the working world and gain the kind of experience that classrooms can’t provide. Even though droves of college students were more than willing to take an unpaid internship to get that kind of experience, the government had made it impossible for them to do so.
Fortunately, what the government taketh away, it can also giveth back. And that is exactly what the Trump administration’s DOL did earlier this year.
In January, the agency announced that it will now use a more flexible test to determine whether interns working at "for-profit" companies are entitled to wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
Under the new test, the DOL will examine the "economic reality" of each situation and decide whether the intern or the employer derives the primary benefit from the relationship rather than rigidly focusing on six factors that each have to be established.
To aid in this, the DOL will now examine seven non-exhaustive factors found in DOL Fact Sheet No. 71.
One factor is the "extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions." Another factor is the "extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern."
Paul DeCamp, an attorney who works with employers at Epstein Becker & Green, told Bloomberg earlier this year, "This standard that the department is setting forth is easier for companies to satisfy in terms of internships qualifying as unpaid."
Now, let’s be fair, unpaid internships aren’t for everyone. Many students rely on the income of their summer jobs to pay for their education. However, for thousands of college students, these internships offer the best way to get real life experience that can help them land a paying job after graduation. And isn’t that the end goal for every student?
Bob Dorigo Jones is senior fellow at the Center for America, creator of the annual Wacky Warning Labels™ Contest, and the bestselling author of "Remove Child Before Folding: The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever." His weekly radio commentary, "Let’s Be Fair!" airs on radio stations across the U.S. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.
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