Old Law, New Questions: College interns confused by rules meant to clarify

Junior Rae Volinsky looks into the internship requirements outside of Dr. A.J. Moore’s office. The federal government has just recently started enforcing a 1938 labor law.

By Emily Landgraf

Terri Huggins expected to get work experience at her internship at Redbook, a women’s magazine published by the Hearst corporation. She ended up as a glorified assistant, opening letters, answering e-mails and doing some copying and filing for the majority of her time there.

“Unfortunately, my internship at Redbook was unpaid,” Huggins said. “It also left me very broke considering I had to spend at least $500 traveling from Hamilton train station to New York. It was also annoying being sent around the city to run errands for them and having to pay out of pocket to do so. They never reimbursed me for those trips.”

Those are the kinds of experiences that federal and state regulators are trying to prevent by cracking down and enforcing a law, which was originally written in 1938. The law aims to protect unemployed people. Regulators are focusing on this law because apparently there are some companies that take advantage of students, making them do menial tasks for no pay.

Huggins, who graduated from Rider in December 2009 with a degree in journalism, did get to attend a few events during her internship, but “most of my work consisted of typical clerical duties.”

Huggins tried to make the best of her situation.

“However, I made sure I was pleasant around [my employers] and did each assignment with a smile,” she said.

Huggins considered the experience worthwhile because it taught her a valuable lesson, but she suggested that students look into smaller companies for internships.

“I definitely learned how to have thicker skin and how to deal with employees that aren’t that friendly,” she said. “Most importantly, I learned what type of company I don’t want to work for and that I prefer small close-knit companies. I just wish that I wasn’t so unhappy and dissatisfied while learning that lesson.”

Carly Totten, a junior journalism major who writes for The Rider News, had a similar experience interning with Nickelodeon.

“I was not happy because I did something called print screening the entire time, which is when you copy and paste articles from the Web, save them in Word and then save it on Nick’s server,” Totten said. “And that was someone’s job that they were paid for, yet I was doing it for free.”

Totten, like Huggins, managed to make the best of her situation and learn about her future career.

“The most valuable experience was being in the environment and being a fly on the wall, seeing what a PR person does every day,” Totten said. “Working with people who are difficult and have big egos and learning to handle myself in those situations was good.”

State and federal regulators are now investigating exploitative internships and requiring a set of criteria to be met for unpaid internships to be considered legitimate. The regulations apply only to for-profit companies.

According to Dean of Students Anthony Campbell, there have been cases where
students have been placed in unpaid internships where they did not get enough of an educational experience.

“The issue that we have is that what for-profit companies were doing was that when they had a job opening, rather than fill the opening, they would say, ‘Why don’t we just get two interns?’” Campbell said.

Associate Provost Dr. James Castagnera said this is the type of abuse that these regulations “are trying to attack.”

Campbell stated that it is important to connect internships with learning.

“If the internships are supposed to be an educational benefit to the student, [the Department of Labor] wants to make sure that the student gets the primary benefit, not the organization,” said Campbell.

Castagnera said that he believes the model used for internships in the Department of Communication and Journalism is correct.

“You have a sort of internship guru in your department, and you meet periodically as a group and discuss the experience that you’re having,”  Castagnera said. “That’s the most clearly educational model of internship.”

Castagnera explained that he thinks the Department of Labor will have to pick and choose its battles.

“The Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor in no way is capable of policing all of these things,” Castagnera said.

The main concern with these regulations is that the company cannot directly benefit from the intern. However, Castagnera does not feel that students will have an issue with their internships as long as they have a learning opportunity, whether the company benefits or not.

“I don’t think you’re going to have students complaining where the students feel that they are getting a worthwhile educational experience,” he said.

Campbell said that in many cases, educators will meet with the company beforehand to establish a learning contract so that the student has a beneficial experience.

Dr. A.J. Moore, director of the Communication and Journalism internship program, is glad that the government is taking a closer look. However, he acknowledged that the new federal enforcement has pros and cons.

“It’s going to require businesses to no longer look at students as free labor,” said Moore, discussing the positive aspects of the situation. “If you want these students with their skills and talents, you’re going to have to pay them.”

Although it’s a positive for students to be paid, Moore said that this will lead to fewer internships for students.

“It’s just one more thing a student can’t have on a résumé,”  he said. “I’m hoping the marketplace is going to correct itself, to really focus on these unpaid interns. ‘If we want these young people assisting us, we’re going to have to pay them.’”

Moore generally advises against taking internships with larger companies, because such interns rarely have access to their supervisors. One of the companies that he strongly recommends against is MTV.

“I have far more cases of people having negative experiences with MTV than positive,” Moore said. “I think it’s the size of the business and the culture. Students are willing to bite the bullet. They’re willing to put up with a lot of crap to say, ‘I’m working with MTV.’”

Moore now urges students to take internships with smaller companies so that they have a better learning experience.

“Go for companies that don’t have as high a profile,” Moore said. “These are the companies that really need interns and who will pay them because they see them as value to their organization. You’re going to get more responsibilities and you’re going to get more pay.”

However, Moore does not reject unpaid internships completely.

“There still is a value in an unpaid internship,” Moore said. “I don’t want students to immediately dismiss it. You should investigate an internship before you take it. [Students] are a very valuable commodity, and they should treat themselves that way. ”

According to Castagnera, sticking with an internship that provides you with no educational experience is not valuable as a résumé builder.

“It may get you the interview,” he said. “But it’s not going to get you past the interview.”

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