Journalism in the Public Interest

Have You Held An Internship Recently? Help Us Investigate
Learn more about the state of internships in the U.S.
by Blair Hickman and Jeremy B. Merrill
ProPublica, May. 6, 2013, 10:14 am

(ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)

May 10, 2013: This post has been corrected.

Since the financial crash, jobs have held a top spot in public discussion. But among all the employment talk, one sector of the workforce has consistently received relatively little attention: interns.

In the past few decades, the number of internships in the United States has ballooned. One recent study found that just over half of graduating college seniors had held some sort of internship. That’s more than double the rate another study found two decades ago.

But legal protection for interns, particularly those who are unpaid, hasn’t kept pace with this rapidly emerging workforce.

That’s why we’re turning our eyes to internships in the U.S.

There are six criteria that must be met for an internship in the for-profit sector to qualify to be unpaid under federal law. One of the key criteria is that the position must be of more benefit to the intern than of benefit to the company. Companies can’t just use interns to replace regular employees.

The Department of Labor may examine internships during investigations of an employer’s compliance with wage standards and record-keeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to a spokesperson.

But Dr. Philip Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, says the government’s enforcement efforts have been passive.

“You have to file a complaint for them to act,” he said. “The rules are there. But in the scheme of things, the [Department of Labor] wouldn’t spend a lot of time heading out to employers.”

The agency receives only a handful of complaints per year, said the spokesperson. As the New York Times has reported, a few states have also begun investigations and fined employers.

Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, said he’s heard mixed reports about how responsive the Department of Labor is to complaints.

“In fairness to the Department of Labor, they require political will to go after things like this,” he said. “My impression is that there are people there who get it. But they have issues around their budget and what they can do.”

“Do I think they could do more?” said Perlin. “Yes, ideally.”

In the past few years, unpaid interns have filed three class-action lawsuits against companies alleging the companies owe interns back pay, because the interns performed the same duties as employees.

So, how many interns are being employed in violation of federal guidelines? What role do colleges and universities play in placing them? What protections cover interns in cases of discrimination or abuse?

We’re launching an investigation to explore answers to some of these questions. And we want to hear your stories. If you've held an internship in the past three years, help us by filling out the form below.

We're most interested in internships held during 2013, but we welcome stories about internships that began as early as Spring 2010. We will publish these stories along with  your employer’s name, but your name will remain confidential.

If you have an upcoming summer internship, sign up for an email alert here and we’ll remind you to submit your story in September. The same email listserv will also alert you to other ways to get involved in this investigation.

Have you had to turn down an internship because you needed to get paid? Share your story with us here.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said the Department of Labor released a six-point unpaid internship test in April 2010. They actually released a fact sheet highlighting the test, which already existed. 

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More on This Investigation

What We Learned Investigating Unpaid Internships

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force – and protections they deserve – is beginning to take shape.

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