Another Problem with Unpaid Internships

Internships used to be a way for students to gain some practical experience in their fields before they actually graduated and entered the job market. In most cases, interns worked on special projects directly related to their areas of study or assisted people with  advanced positions within their prospective fields. In many cases, the internships led directly to full-time employment with the companies sponsoring the internships.

Then, as universities became more corporatized and rapidly expanded the number of fields in which internships were required, corporations began to exploit interns as an unpaid, entry-level workforce. Even when these internships look good on a resume, they add very little to the students’ knowledge of or experience within the fields in which they intend to pursue careers. Furthermore, these internships very seldom lead to any subsequent offers of more meaningful employment with the companies.

In short, the expansion of internships was a pedagogically sound idea that has become, for the most part, just another way in which higher education is failing to deliver on what it is promising students.

Worse, in a recent article for Nation of Change, Blair Hickman and Christie Thompson report on another major way in which unpaid internships can be exploitative. Because the positions are unpaid, they are not legally regarded as employment and are not covered by labor law. Therefore, an intern who is sexually harassed in the workplace has no right to file a complaint, never mind to sue, because of sexual harassment.

Hickman and Thompson focus on the case brought, in 1994, by Bridget O’Connor, an intern at the Rockland Psychiatric Center. One of the resident physicians at that facility suggested that she should consider participating in orgies and that she should remove her clothing before entering his office. When she protested about this harassment, he began to refer to her openly as “Miss Sexual Harassment.”

Despite the fact that this case was dismissed almost twenty years ago and despite the fact that the number of internships has increased exponentially over those two decades, there is still no federal law protecting interns from sexual harassment, and below the federal level, only Oregon and the District of Columbia have such laws.

Although some legislators and commentators have dismissed the need for such laws by pointing to the relatively small number of complaints that have become public, those legislators and commentators are missing the point that the interns victimized by sexual harassment currently have no place whatsoever to register formal complaints and that, in a period of extended economic recession, they are more dependent than ever on favorable—or at least not unfavorable—references from those with whom they have completed internships. Both factors have surely suppressed the number of complaints. Indeed, given that interns are much more vulnerable to harassers than full-time employees, it doesn’t make any sense that the complaints made by those full-time employees should exceed those made by interns as disproportionately as they now do.

The irony of this situation is, of course, that if the interns were being paid a fair wage, they would be protected by federal and state laws prohibiting sexual harassment, as well as other types of harassment based on race, ethnicity, religion, and disability, in their workplaces.

Hickman and Thompson’s complete article can be found at:

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