Unequal Pay for Equal Labor


Zachary Watson/Guardian

STATE NEWS — Ever since the California economy really started reeling in 2006, Port Triton has been flooding with listings for the most infamous of student jobs: the unpaid internship.

However, the rise in unpaid internships — keeping penniless college students that much poorer during the four-year student-loan binge — recently caught the attention of federal regulators. According to officials in Oregon and California, companies are ignoring labor laws in offering these “opportunities.”

It’s about time someone stood up for us. And government investigation of the unpaid internship’s legality should only be the first step in revising employment laws so that student interns get paid for their labor. Especially those putting themselves through college, who can’t afford to sacrifice 40 work hours a week for a bullet point on their resume.

Until now, the six criteria legalizing the unpaid intern — established in 1947 — have served more as loose-fitting guidelines open to the employer’s interpretation than solid, unbendable principles. Because the criterion that the unpaid intern must benefit more from the employer than vice versa is vague, an employer who forces a student to stuff envelopes all summer in exchange for a glowing letter of recommendation can still get off scot-free.

But in rewriting this legislation more concretely to eliminate all chances of employers skirting its meaning, the federal government can make it that much harder for companies to deny when compensation is legally deserved.

Until then, cracking the whip on exploitative employers will remain a student task. Especially given that Career Services Center employees tend to skirt the obtrusive elephant in the room when offering students career opportunities.

While we wait for the slow-moving cogs of bureaucracy to turn, the UCSD Career Services Center should take this opportunity to ensure that the internships advertised on Port Triton offer more to UCSD students than daily coffee runs for the company’s head honcho.

Approximately half the college students who have held unpaid internships could testify that their employers didn’t play by the rules — at least, that’s what federal Labor Department regulators estimate, though they admit it’s difficult to uncover which particular corporations cheat their respective interns out of a salary, as interns are often fearful of filing complaints.

The internship evaluations posted on the Career Services Center website, however, provide a decent outlet for those students who wish to air their grievances against employers with the luxury of anonymity.

One student, who did an unpaid internship for the locally-based Virtual Reality Medical Center, complained that he accepted the job offer under the guise of gaining editing experience, though — surprise, surprise — the position mostly just involved doing an editorial assistant’s grunt work.

And it’s not just the crisp paycheck student workers are missing out on — it’s also legal protection against sexual harassment in the workplace, afforded exclusively to official employees. Although employment laws don’t apply to interns, the UCSD Academic Internship Program should investigate which companies have had employee-rights problems in the past, and focus on directing students toward proven internships that provide a safe academic environment.

Internship Coordinator at the Career Services Center Christy Quiogue claims that all students — regardless of background — are on a level playing field. But when the CSC’s most concrete effort to ensure this equality is merely advising students to research the internships that interest them, to make sure intern evaluations from past students align with their career goals, Quiogue’s is a dubious claim.

This approach fails to address the idea that more financially strained students may not have the luxury of adding unpaid internships to their resumes next to the part-time job that actually pay their bills.

To make matters worse, in most cases students are required to accept college credit through AIP. While school credit might seem like a nice consolation prize for free labor, it comes at a hefty cost: AIP requires that students pay tuition for every college credit they receive.

At $229 per unit and a minimum of four units per internship, students end up paying the university at least $916 for their free labor. So, if you have to work for free, then — congrats — you will succeed in the post-graduation job hunt. If not, better luck next time.

Of course, there are the strong, competitive few — well-off enough to go without a salary for a summer — who swear the unpaid internship is worth the work in the long run. But it’s not fair that the current system accommodates rich kids with trust funds, while those from lower-income families are forced to forgo a professional opportunity for a paying job. This is where federal law can come into play to ensure students aren’t being abused for free labor.

It seems daunting for the latter group of students to speak out against unequal opportunity, but filing an educated complaint is the only way to change a company’s policy. Oregon state regulators, for one, have recently been attending to grievances from student employees, offering them back pay for their unpaid work.

Because California is among the top states in violation of these laws, along with Oregon and New York, it is now our own prerogative to call attention to a sketchy system, even if it means giving up the chance for a radiant employer evaluation.

The federal government needs to revise and tighten its labor laws to spell out who must be paid for what, leaving no room for dispute. In the meantime, we the unpaid interns should inform ourselves on our own exploitation. In the end, it will help interns — particularly those who are underprivileged — to earn some deserved leverage with employers and boost their chances of post-graduation success.

Additional reporting by Cheryl Hori.

Readers can contact Kelsey Marrujo at [email protected].

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