Plenty of students would be willing to work for nothing as an intern to get a foot in the door.
And for years many employers have been more than happy to oblige.
But the future of unpaid internships could be in doubt after a New York federal court ruling last week that film studio Fox Searchlight Pictures violated wage and overtime laws by not paying interns for work that regular employees performed.
"I see (the ruling) as more of a wake-up call," said Deb Horne, California state director of the Society of Human Resource Management. "We need to make sure we are following the law and make sure we are in compliance with internship programs."
The court ruling focuses on for-profit, private sector businesses. Nearly 40 percent of interns in this sector are unpaid, according to a survey slated for release today by the Pennsylvania-based National Association of Colleges and Employers, or NACE. "The ruling clearly has implications for unpaid internships," said Edwin Koc, a NACE spokesman.
It's not going to eliminate unpaid internships most unpaid interns are in the non-profit and government sectors, areas exempt from federal wage and labor regulations, Koc said.
But "how industry responds will be most interesting," Koc said. "Are they going to lessen the numbers of internships? We will have to monitor that."
Interns paid and unpaid have long used the opportunities to build the experience and networks they need to launch their careers.
Making sure that experience benefits the intern and is not just free summer help is the test for for-profit employers.
"This is a cautionary note. It is a reminder for those employers who may want to look to interns to minimize costs that that may not be appropriate," said Steve McCutcheon, an employment law attorney at Sacramento firm Cook Brown.
According to the federal labor law and California state law, the internship must be for the intern's benefit.
Interns cannot be used to displace regular employees, and must receive training similar to what they would receive in the classroom.
"Are (students) getting the same training they get at school? Employers can't derive an immediate benefit," McCutcheon said.
"The policy reason is that they don't want a for-profit to benefit off of the back of someone who otherwise should be paid."
McCutcheon said the ruling is a teaching moment for employers unaware of the limits on unpaid internships.
"The ruling is instructive for all for-profit employers," McCutcheon said. "Laws regarding the use of interns have been restrictive and a number of employers have unwittingly run afoul."
Marcie Kirk-Holland, program director of the UC Davis Internship and Career Center, said interns expect to perform errands and other tasks.
Kirk-Holland said students are not taken advantage of and don't feel they are being exploited. "There's got to be some give-and-take" with employers, she said.
Still, Kirk-Holland said, last week's ruling "will weed out employers that aren't prepared to have an internship program."
And she said the ruling may also change perceptions about internships.
"I think that it could help bust the myth that interns polish your shoes, get your coffee and pick up your laundry," she said. "That would be a positive if it could do that."
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