Yes, you're an intern -- but you do have rights

A look at Marketplace's internship area. Marketplace interns are paid, but the unpaid internship is a common work experience for many college and graduate students. Now some are saying that businesses need to pay up.

What do Atlantic Records, The New Yorker, and Fox Searchlight Pictures have in common? They've all been accused of exploiting unpaid interns. There's been a rash of lawsuits in the past couple of months and the charges are pretty much the same. Interns working overtime doing menial tasks like making coffee, organizing cabinets, and running errands for creative types. Not exactly the kind of "vocational" training internships are supposed to be about. Almost a third of college students take unpaid internships now. But it's not always clear how to get something meaningful out of the experience. That's something Lauren Berger knows a thing or two about. She's author of the book "All Work, No Pay" and writes the blog "Intern Queen." She's also completed more than a dozen internships herself.

Before you take an internship, what do you need to know before agreeing to do it?

"If you're a student, you really want to look for a structured internship program. You want to know that you're going into a situation where they have the benefit of the intern top of mind. So when you're in an interview in an internship a great question to ask is, 'Can you describe a day as an intern at your company?' This is really going to show you if the employer is aware of what the interns are doing. And if they're not aware, it's not a good sign," says Berger. "You want to know what you're getting yourself into."

Berger says interns should be proactive, take initiative and know what your rights are. You have to be your own advocate.

"If you look up the Fair Labor Standards Act -- the FLSA -- they have a fact sheet and it's sort of a test. An unpaid internship can be an unpaid internship as long as they meet these six criteria that the Fair Labor Standards Act describes," says Berger. "The intern should not be doing revenue-generating activities. They shouldn't displace regular, paid employees. It also says that anything done at the internship should be in the benefit of the student and at times the operation of the company might actually be slowed down because it does take time to teach students. It also states that the interns really need to have a structured, supervised learning experience. This is an educational experience. The intern should not be acting like production assistants and just sort of be sent on their merry way all day. They need feedback. They need to be constantly evaluated."

What should you do if you feel like you're being exploited as an intern?

"If you feel like there's a problem, you need to stand up and you have to have a conversation. My advice to a student would be the first conversation is either with the internship coordinator or the HR rep who hired you. If for some reason you don't feel comfortable talking to those people, the best person to talk with is going to be your university's career center. Their job is to make sure that you're comfortable at your internship and they will have the conversations that you don't want to have," says Berger. "But make sure you have a conversation because we're seeing with a lot of these lawsuits, some of these people were interning in 2007. It's 2013 now. That was a long time ago. I have to look at those cases and say: what if the student said something? If they said something, would it be any different? We don't know the answer to that, but if you see something you have a dialogue because it can be fixed in a lot of cases."

Now not all unpaid internships are bad, so how do you decide if it's worth it or not?

"I always tell students if you're deciding between an unpaid internship and a paid internship, don't let that $10, $15, even $20 an hour make the difference in helping you decide. You want to go into an internship that's going to be the most beneficial for you. The goal is to go into the internship and come out more knowledgeable about the industry and able to determine whether or not you want to work in that field after graduation. You make the invest now, you get the paycheck later," says Berger.

As for the many internships she worked herself, Berger says she didn't intern for a particularly bad company, but did have an embarrassing moment.

"It's funny because a lot of people say oh, interns shouldn't have to make coffee. That's terrible. If you work in an office environment, you need to know how to make coffee. When I was a junior in college I had no idea how to make coffee. I was interning at a morning show in Orlando, Fla., and they told me to make coffee in the break room. I went in, pressed the wrong button, the coffee machine exploded, everyone got upset at me. You know what? I'll never forget how to make a good cup of coffee because of my internship experience."

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk covering sustainability news spots and features.

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