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Unpaid Interns Are Exploited?


Do you employ unpaid student interns — college students who work in exchange for on-the-job training?

If so, President Obama's Labor Department says that you're an exploiter. The government says an internship is OK only if it meets six criteria, among them that the employer must get "no immediate advantage" from the intern's activities. In fact, the employer's work "may be impeded."

Impeded? No immediate advantage?

I'm in trouble, then. I have an intern at Fox Business News, and I'm getting immediate advantages from her work all the time. I've had interns my whole career and gotten lots of immediate advantage from them. Occasionally, I've been impeded — but the better interns did the research that made my work possible. I'd asked my TV bosses to pay for research help, but they said, "You think we're made of money?"

So I asked colleges if students wanted internships. Many did, and from then on I got much of my best help from unpaid college students.

Did I exploit them? Obama's Labor Department says it's hired 250 new investigators to catch exploiters like me. I tried to get the department to answer my questions, but it declined.

So I spoke with Village Voice writer Anya Kamenetz, who wrote a column titled "Take This Internship and Shove It" in The New York Times. (

"We have minimum wage laws in this country for a very good reason," she replied. "We had them to avoid exploitation like child labor.

But what's wrong with a free internship if a student learns something about the career he wants to pursue?

I was a little stunned by Kamenetz's answer: "Employers could say we cannot afford to pay anybody, so why should we be forced to pay the guy who cleans the floors?"

Because they wouldn't get people to clean floors if they didn't pay. But I guess I shouldn't expect a New York writer to understand markets.

"Interns are people that come in and work for below minimum wage," she said. "They pull the bottom out of the labor market, and it's less fair for everybody."

So it should be banned?

"There are a lot of ways to fill in the need for interns and the need for college students to get experience.

One way is for colleges to pay stipends."

But they won't.

"They will if the law is enforced. Another way is for companies to hire students that are eligible for federal work-study."

Oh, I see. The taxpayers should pay for my interns.

"Nobody is saying that these interns should go away," Kamenetz added. "What they're saying is a company should put money in their budgets to pay people the minimum wage to work for them, and that is just the basic issue of fairness. If you start working for free, where's it going to end?"

Give me a break. It would end when the interns have the skills to earn market salaries. Minimum-wage law and union rules already killed off apprentice jobs on construction sites. Contractors say: If I must pay high union wages, I'll hire experienced workers. I'd lose money if I hired a kid and helped him learn on the job.

My interns often told me that working — unpaid — at WCBS or ABC was the best learning experience of their lives: "I learned more from you than at college, and I didn't have to pay tuition!" It was good for them and good for me.

Kamenetz said, "Studies show that when companies pay their interns, they design the internships better."

Please. A few years ago, my old employer, ABC, started paying our interns. That was good for well-connected students who got internships, but bad for those who were turned down. ABC cut the number of interns by more than half. There's no free lunch.

What's happened to the rights of contract and free association? If student and employer come to an agreement, both expect to benefit or it wouldn't happen. The student is no indentured servant. If the employer "exploits" the student, the student can quit. The contract ought to be nobody's business but theirs.

Butt out, federal bullies. Grown-ups can take care of ourselves.

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at <a href="" <>></a>. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at




8 Comments | Post Comment
Mr. Stossel:
The piece you did today on unpaid internships was right on point, as usual.
Another dimension of unpaid vs. minimum wage workers is unfolding.
The USDOL has recently (post Obama) begun to enforce a new interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act which requires US employers to reimburse workers from outside a normal commuting distance at the end of the first work week for any costs the workers incurred in taking the job. If the USDOL decides that 'unpaid' interns are subject to the minimum wage, it's also likely that the USDOL would compel you to pay the actual costs (travel, subsistence and lodging) incurred by your interns.
The new policy stems from a decision in the 9th Circuit (FL) in a case brought by (of course) federally-funded legal services lawyers on behalf of agricultural workers in Arriaga v. Pacific Grove Farms which held that costs borne by workers to accept jobs outside of local commuting distances were 'solely for the benefit' of their eventual employers, and thus covered as a compulsory employer-borne cost, by the FLSA. The fact that there is a divergent opinion in the 5th Circuit (Decatur Hotels) did not stop the Hilda Solis Labor Department from implementing this new and dubiously legal benefit.
You might have one of your 'unpaid' interns look into this perversion of justice!
With regard,
Libby Whitley Fulton
President, MASLabor
Lovingston VA
Comment: #1
Posted by: lwhitley
Wed May 5, 2010 11:15 AM
Mr. Stoessel: I think you are great at what you do. I would love to see you more ofter on the Factor but with O'reilly shutting his mouth and letting you talk. If you know " what " was electricity. O"reilly would be a power station. I agree with you with the interns. Great experience, to meet people, and to see if your line of work interests them. Good pay is great but so is going to a job that you enjoy and is exciting to you and this is how interns learn. Too bad we couldn't have sent Pinocchio and Ried and Pelosi and Schumer to some place to intern and conveniently forgot where they went. I have an idea where I would like to have them go but since you are a classy person(unlike them) I won't print it out. Take care and God bless. Matt
Comment: #2
Posted by: matt simons
Wed May 5, 2010 1:14 PM
My daughter-in-law is scheduled to do a semester of student teaching next fall. Since she is not being paid for this assignment, isn't the government exploiting college students by not paying students to do a required semester of student teaching?
Comment: #3
Posted by: Mary Heberlig
Fri May 7, 2010 7:06 AM
Re: Mary Heberlig
I'll bet Ms. Heberig also had to pay tuition to the school so they would LET her daughter-in-law "work" for free for the public schools. I know I had to do that and so did my caughter. In fact, when the mentor teacher had to be out, my daughter had to do all the work in the classroom while the substitute teacher got paid to read the newspaper for the day.
Mr. Srossel, what about the college students who "volunteer" to work for Political campaigns? If this reasoning stands, shouldn't the politician pay the students who stuff envelopes, knock on doors, fetch coffee, etc. Or Maybe, Mr Stossel, you should just re-title your interns "volunteers". Lots of colleges are now requiring students to do community volunteer work, is that not the same thing?
Comment: #4
Posted by: E. Gentry
Fri May 7, 2010 8:26 AM
Maybe everybody has missed out on this whole "intern" idea. I completed student teaching, a requirement for an education degree. I went into a classroom for several months and worked for free. Now that I think about it, I actually had to pay the university in order to get the unpaid internship. I received something in return for my tuition and time: an "A" and a diploma. Interns are paid, but in an academic format. If students wish to earn money they get a job, if they want to achieve an academic goal they become interns.
Comment: #5
Posted by: J Cook
Sat May 8, 2010 4:33 PM
Funny thing - If I'm not mistaken, the White House employs the services of many, many interns. Wil these laws apply to them? Obama should start looking in his own house before pointing the finger elsewhere. I seem to recall a certain intern, Monica Lewinski, who served under Fmr. President Clinton (literally). I think we can all agree that he was the recipient of several, widely-publicized "immediate advantages." What is this world coming to? These interns enter into these positions voluntarily, nobody is forcing them into it. I don't believe they would stay if it was so "unfair", and both sides weren't reaping the benefits of the agreement. Oh, I forgot, Pres. Obama must have already solved all of the country's other problems for this to have taken such a high priority. Let's hope his term comes to an end before he has the chance to cause too much irreparable damage. Anyone who votes for him to serve another term should have their head examined.
Comment: #6
Posted by: steven keklak
Mon May 10, 2010 8:13 PM
I think you are misunderstanding the issue. It's not that the basic concept of unpaid internships and student teaching is exploitative. Internships are supposed to a way for students to get real world education and experience. They become exploitative when the business or organization uses those interns to replace paid workers and/or when they task said students with menial, non-related work - especially when you consider that many student's are paying to relieve school credit for the internship (meaning paying for a class in addition to any expenses). In an economy where employers are doing everything they can to cut costs, many are firing employees (or just not hiring any new ones) and instead replacing them with interns. That is unfair to those of us who are unemployed because that's one less job out there. And if a student is possibly paying thousands in order to receive credit for their internship, they shouldn't be relegated to secretarial or janitorial work.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Shannon Miller
Sat May 22, 2010 8:53 AM
John, the problem is not with the unpaid internships in situations like yours where they learn their chops and get ready for the competitive communications industry jobs, the problem is that greedy companies have discovered that they can use this to get free help! And in a lot of cases it will result in lost paid jobs. Just use your head and look at the history of exploitation of American workers by corporations in instances where there were no laws to rein them in. I consider myself conservative, I listen to Beck and Limbaugh, and agree with most of what they say, but capitalism is a dog that needs a leash. You know, in most instances, corporations look at paid jobs as a necessary evil. They may talk about how much they value their workers, but almost every one of them would throw them under the bus if they could and still run the company. All they care about in the executive offices is their "fudiciary" responsibility to their stockholders. I think that internships should only be allowed where the intern is learning a valuable skill and it should be for a finite length of time. Like the apprenticeships in times of old.
Comment: #8
Posted by: bigkahuna
Sun May 23, 2010 5:00 PM
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