Debate swirls around unpaid internships as economic inequality in the United States worsens. Some believe that unpaid internships are a way for a candidate to prove their devotion and work ethic, while others feel they exploit a young person’s labor and are exclusionary to those who can afford to work unpaid. Whatever your feelings on unpaid work, it is a reality that many employers do offer them. So, whether you’re considering one, have accepted one, or just want to learn more about them, this article will attempt to answer some key questions.
Is my unpaid internship even legal?
The U.S. Department of Labor (USDL) uses a “primary beneficiary test” when it determines the legality of individual unpaid internships; essentially, the employer must prove that the intern is the primary benefactor from the unpaid work. The USDL uses seven guidelines to “test” an employer:
- The intern and employer must agree and understand that no compensation will be given
- The employer must provide training similar to that which would be given in an educational setting
- The internship must provide beneficial learning to the intern throughout its duration
- An unpaid intern cannot replace or displace a paid employee
- The intern and employer must understand that the intern is not entitled to a paid job at the end of the unpaid work
- In specific cases, the internship must be tied into the intern’s formal education program
- In those same cases, the internship must accommodate the intern’s education by corresponding with the academic calendar
If those seven guidelines are met with flexible completion, the internship is legally permitted. If significant issues arise between the guidelines and the internship experience, the intern is entitled to at least minimum wage (US Department of Labor).
How on Earth can I pay for it?
So, your unpaid internship was approved, and now you have to deal with the financial reality of working without pay for at least a few months. What are some options that you have to stay afloat?
1. Front-load your effort
Do you have a paid job already that you’ll be leaving to work unpaid? If so, consider working as many hours as you can in the days and weeks leading to your departure. For example, if you have three weeks off after the school year and before your unpaid position starts, consider working as many hours as you can at a current job. It may not feel particularly fair to lose your time off, but how valuable could that money prove to be in a month? Take advantage of being paid while you can, and work your tail off!
2. Look into scholarships and stipends
If you are a student, look into financing options through your university, as it’s likely that at least one opportunity exists to be sponsored. Consult with your employer about a potential housing or income stipend as well. Need-based stipends are more available than you think!
3. Search for a second job or work from home
A restaurant may exist down the street that hires for less than 15 hours a week, and pays excellently. If that’s your reality, congratulations! However, anyone with a lucrative second job probably isn’t reading this article. Search for restaurants and local businesses near your internship, specifically for part-time and flexible positions. If none arise, ask around to see if anyone in your network knows of work that can be done remotely. Though it will likely take effort and energy to be hired for a job from home, it could also give you a source of income that could be invaluable.
Is an unpaid internship at a dream company preferable to an unexciting paid position?
This is clearly a subjective question. Unpaid internships do allow for getting one’s foot in the door and making connections, which for certain industries (fashion, television, etc.) can be incredibly valuable. Additionally, you can rationalize the months of unpaid work as requisite to pursuing a dream career in that industry. However, the lack of pay can have ramifications in other parts of your life, such as your diet, health, social life, or dating life. Money is also an extreme stressor, so tightening a budget can have implications past the numbers.
If you do choose to take an unpaid internship, understand the planning required for every week along the way. Stockpile money wherever you can, be prudent and resourceful, and try to learn a lot!