Celina Oseguera/ Mustang News

Part 2 of an occasional series about students and their rights.

In the summer of 2014, I spent three hours every day commuting from Berkeley to San Francisco.

I walked 20 minutes from my apartment to Ashby station just to wait another five to ten minutes for a next train. The BART ride itself wasn’t more than 45 minutes, but then I would walk another 20 to 30 minutes from the Embarcadero station to my unpaid internship in the Financial District.

It was an ordeal to say the least.

My daily tasks included writing blogs and copy for the company website, in addition to helping with office projects and planning events throughout the summer. It was everything I expected from an unpaid internship — I learned skills and gained experience in a professional setting without any monetary compensation. Though the company I interned for reimbursed me for my commute, I was still expected to live within commuting distance and support myself in one of the most expensive metropolitan areas in the nation.

For college students who are not yet financially independent, the choice sometimes rests between working minimum wage in retail or working at an unpaid internship to gain experience in their fields of study. While some students have the luxury of taking unpaid internships during the summer, others cannot afford to do so.Built into the curriculum Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing philosophy gives students hands-on experience inside and outside of the classroom. Internships are encouraged and sometimes even required by certain departments for students to graduate, providing students with opportunities to sharpen their skills outside of the classroom.

According to Executive Director of Career Services Eileen Buecher, internships are an important part of any major’s curriculum.

“Any internship — paid or unpaid — the benefit is that students are introduced to an industry, they’re introduced to corporate or nonprofit culture, they’re introduced to Learn by Doing outside of the classroom so they get to further develop their skills,” Buecher said. “Just as importantly, it helps them either affirm this is what they want to do, or they may find out they don’t want to do that type of work.”

While students understand their field of study, this doesn’t help them make a definitive decision of what they want to do post-grad. Simply attending classes and being involved in extracurricular activities doesn’t mean students are necessarily ready to graduate without a taste of the real workplace, according to Buecher.

That’s where internships come into play.

“An internship is a way to explore who you are and what you want, but also gives you the opportunity to do Learn by Doing outside the classroom, skill development, learning about corporate culture,” Buecher said. “It’ll teach you something, but you’re also being hired to do something … Just being part of it, showing up for it and learning, is going to teach you something. It’s like going to class.”

Graphic by Ayrton Ostly

Some majors at Cal Poly that require an internship to graduate include wine and viticulture, child development, psychology and agricultural communications.

While internships provide a learning opportunity that supplements the college classroom experience, the rules are clear: interns must be compensated monetarily or educationally.

According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, individuals “must be compensated under the law for the services they perform for an employer,” with compensation starting at minimum wage and overtime compensation for workweeks that extend past 40  hours. Unpaid interns at for-profit businesses are an exception, but only if they pass the Test for Unpaid Interns created by the United States Department of Labor.

The test for unpaid interns

Unpaid internships are only permitted if they are educational. If unpaid interns are asked to do menial tasks such as fetching coffee for the office, the internship does not pass and the intern would need to be paid wages for their work.

However, if the internship passes all six qualifications laid out by the tests, then employers do not have to pay their interns. The six parts to the test are as follows:

1) The internship must be educational, allowing students to gain experience in their field of study.

2) Interns must benefit from the experience when they accept an internship.

3) The internship is meant to serve the intern, not the other way around, so an intern cannot replace the duties of a regular employee.

4) The intern’s manager does not benefit immediately from the intern’s work.

5) There is no guarantee or promise of a job at the end of the internship.

6) Both employer and intern agree that the intern is not entitled to wages during the internship.

Since certain majors require students to complete internships that they might not necessarily be passionate about, they may need to be more careful about the kinds of internships they accept.

A watchdog presence

Before 2010, there was no set standard for the compensation that interns received. Before the Department of Labor began enforcing regulations for internships, there wasn’t a standard for whether internships would be paid or unpaid.

Some internships weren’t paid if the student was receiving credit at a university, while other internships paid students for their work as a direct correlation to their value.

“People are [now] more informed. The big thing is free labor and also … the quality of the experience,” Buecher said. 

There are some regulations in place to make sure students are protected from being extorted for cheap labor through the guise of an internship.

While the Fair Labor Standards Act and the U.S. Department of Labor have their own regulations in place, there are a couple ways students can better ensure their internships are legitimate, according to Buecher.

When deciding on internships, students should look at the job description, the organization’s website and how long the organization has been around. Students should also ask themselves what exactly they want out of the internship.

A classist system

Business administration senior Alex Chaconas worked as an unpaid intern for a small record label in Encinitas. There wasn’t any sort of legally binding contract, and he was expected to do a lot of grunt work.

“They were all pretty helpful, but they definitely made you do a lot of unsubstantial work; not very educational, running for coffee, taking out the trash, sending the mail, the kind of stereotypical intern responsibilities,” he said.

Chaconas noted that although unpaid internships provide compensation through other means such as educational opportunities, they are still discriminatory against college students who cannot afford to take an unpaid internship.

“If you’re an individual who has a family that doesn’t make a lot of income, and you have to move to a certain place over the summer or find housing or pay all these expenses to be able to work this internship, you also need a source of income to pay for all these things … if you’re working full time or part time at an unpaid internship, it’s pretty impossible to be self-sufficient,” he said. “You need some sort of aid or help, and that’s not going to come from the company.”

Chaconas’ advice for making the best out of an unpaid internship is to take advantage of the networking opportunities. Even though it may be inconvenient to not receive compensation, it is still a good idea to actively make connections with mentors who are willing to help you grow.

“If you leave a good impression, people will see that and people will latch onto you and give you a rod to the career path that you want to choose or dive into,” he said.

A more positive experience

On the other hand, some students have had unpaid internships that don’t consist of meaningless tasks. Business administration senior Sonia Solovoka worked as an unpaid intern at Foresters Financial in the Bay Area. While Fridays were mandatory work days, interns could volunteer for time slots to work in the office during the week.

The relaxed nature of the internship program meant less pressure on Solovoka and more opportunities for her to take the internship at her pace.

“I really dove into it to see what life was like in the office,” she said. “We weren’t isolated as the interns and that’s the area where we sat. We were incorporated into the company and treated as one of them.”

Despite not compensating interns with wages, Forester Financial was generous to its interns in other ways. In addition to taking the interns out to dinner and inviting them to company functions, Solovoka was awarded a $50 gift card for volunteering to come into the office the most number of times out of all the other interns. For educational purposes, Solovoka still believes in the merit of unpaid internships.

“I think there’s a lot of stigma behind not being paid for your work and that experience being lesser than a paid internship [whether that’s] in the eyes of employers or your parents,” Solovoka said. “That doesn’t mean anything because I still got so much hands-on experience, I learned a lot.”

Solovoka advised students to make the most out of the internship experience by doing extensive research to get a sense of what the internship will be like and understand what sort of expectations will be set.

“Ask a lot of questions on the structure of what you will be doing, making sure its concrete things and not some pretty words to say paperwork,” she said. “Make sure they’re not hiding behind their ad on Craigslist or MustangJobs.”

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