How I Discovered My Internship Is Illegal

I am writing this blog entry for those of you who will be graduating soon and may be considering internships as a viable path into the publishing business or advertising or whatever, for those you who will still be students for a while and are currently looking at internships, and for those readers who might  need the training an internship provides to change careers.

First, a little background information about my situation: I’ve been unemployed since June 2010.

There’s always the awkward moment when I meet someone and they ask what I do for a living. I’ve tried blunt honesty (“I’m unemployed at the moment.”) and the more euphemistic responses (“I’m between jobs.”), but the range of responses is the same–encouragement (“Something will probably come along soon.”), empathy (“It’s a tough job market.”), or jealousy (“It must be nice to not have to go work.”). I’ve worked in a variety of fields, from manual labor (stripping tobacco, cleaning or painting houses), to technical (research, physical therapy, computer and audio-visual technician, librarian) to administrative, but the most consistent experience were my seven years working with print and publishing. Even though I sincerely disbelieve the death omens of the print industry (as long as street lamps don’t incorporate LED advertising boxes), I know that I’m not living in a print-heavy environment. And the only advice I’ve received is that I need to reinvent myself.

So in addition to applying for jobs (everything white collar in addition to janitorial work at primate labs, front line at the Jack in the Box, and canvassing for causes), I started applying for internships. In theory, internships are like going to a vocational school and open to people of all ages who are trying to change their careers. I figured my background would lend itself nicely to communications, since I did have two student jobs as a communications assistant when I was younger.

I landed an unpaid communications, development, and marketing internship right away. All they really wanted was graphic design labor done from my home computer, but it was my only opportunity in Seattle, so I produced several professional products for them. Sure, I wasn’t learning anything about communications or having any regular interaction with them, but at least I had something to do.

But last week, I messed up at the internship in a large way–I applied for an open position, the same position that I had been working under for the past four months.

I’d seen her job and I knew I could it, because it’s a fairly easy but stressful variety of administrative work that does require knowledge of Adobe Indesign and Photoshop. After the interview I knew I wouldn’t be hired (only one director showed up, the interview took place in a hallway, and my ideas about creating a static Facebook landing page, such as this example I made for the interview, and switching the website over to a content-management system were discounted immediately), so I just hoped that the person they hired would be someone pleasant to work with.

I’m sure that the person they hired has decades of administrative experience, and she’s probably pleasant, but starting her first day on the job, she began e-mailing and calling me every couple hours to learn how to do basic tasks in computer programs that are necessary for part of the position. In short, I was being asked to train her at the job for which I was denied.

I found this frustrating. It seemed unethical.

After a very quick google search, I believe that my internship is, in fact, violating federal labor laws.

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, all six of the following criteria must be met for an intern (or “trainnee”) to work without receiving minimum wage:

  • The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;
  • The training is for the benefit of the trainees or students;
  • The trainees or students do not displace regular employees, but work under close supervision;
  • The employer that provides the training receives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students and, on occasion, his operations may even be impeded;
  • The trainees or students are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
  • The employer and the trainees or students understand that the trainees or students are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

Basically, in my situation (and I’m guessing in the situation of quite a few interns out there), the second, third, and fourth items are questionable. By training someone else, I am not receiving training myself.

What’s worse is that my internship benefits my employer more than it benefits me, which has been going on for a while–I’m doing print-based graphic design (brochure, postcards, and programs), which is billable work that I already have experience doing and which is an immediate advantage to the employer. And totally unsupervised, since they requested that I work from home. (It is, in fact, indistinguishable from the work that I was doing when I had freelance work and therefore displacing an employee.)

Unfortunately, when I contacted the director to complain that I was training the new employee and find this task disagreeable, he thought that I was only complaining because I did not receive the job. I am still working on a solution that will appeal to everyone involved, but in the meantime, I want to caution others who may be considering an internship:

Don’t settle for an internship that violates your rights.


  • Marcus says:

    It seems to me that you should be complaining because you didn’t receive the job. I’d be curious to know what exactly qualified your new boss over you. I’m guessing it was a matter of them already have an unpaid slave who did great work (you), and that your position would be harder to find a replacement for than the boss position. Strange as that may sound. It’s got to be harder to find someone who’s skilled and willing to work for free than who’s semi-skilled and willing to work for money.

    What a racket.

    Edit: Purely by coincidence, I followed a link from the rumpus to this flowchart:

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    That seems like a good position to walk away from.

    • Scott Eubanks says:

      I’d incorporate a couple of furtive obscenities into my designs along with some still frames from Shiza films. You might want to continue training the new employee, something like, “If you cant find the story view in InDesign, rub the biggest magnet you can find on the front of your CPU.” Sam’s right. Leave.

  • JaimeRWood says:

    Yeah, Amaris, I’m with Marcus and Sam. You shouldn’t feel bad about standing up for yourself. Not that it’s any of my business, but I think you’d be better off spending your time applying for jobs that you’re really interested in than working for free. Lame! Also, if it is really illegal, I wonder how you’d report it.

  • John says:

    This is my favorite Adventures in Unemployment piece that you’ve written thus far!

  • Nicole Hardina says:

    Amaris, I gotta tell you, the fact that the extremely qualified (with awesome web portfolio to prove it), competent and confident YOU can’t find a job makes me feel like the far less tech savvy I am never getting out of construction work. I think the worst part is constantly trying to find perspective. Am I surviving on false hope? Will there really ever be a job? Should I go back to waitressing even though it daily sucks my soul out through my feet? Ok. I’m sure that’s enough whining for everyone’s taste. Back to my false hope and my neon safety vest.

  • Have you looked into contract work? That’s what I do right now because I also can’t find full time work.

  • Amaris,

    Your unpaid internship was 100% illegal. It is sad that greedy employers feel the need to exploit those new to the workforce. Another aspect to this whole issue is that Amaris’ employer, by breaking the law, was given an unfair advantage over the competition, who presumably pay all of their employees at least minimum wage. The time is ripe that those benefiting from slave labor pay for their actions. We at Intern Justice have one goal in mind: end the abusive practice of unpaid internships forever. We are using the courts Seeking Justice For Unpaid Interns, One Lawsuit At A Time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *