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Interns: Assign Real Work or Menial Tasks? Neither, says The New York Times

Posted in Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Laws and Regulations, Wage & Hour

Back in 2010, at the same time the U.S. Department of Labor was making a big publicity push on its interpretation of rules regarding unpaid interns, the New York Times ran piece noting how employers were skirting the law when it came to internships:

The Labor Department says it is cracking down on firms that fail to pay interns properly and expanding efforts to educate companies, colleges and students on the law regarding internships.

“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” said Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the department’s wage and hour division.

The biggest problem, according to the article is that the employer should derive “no immediate advantage” from the intern’s activities — “in other words, it’s largely a benevolent contribution to the intern.”  The takeaway from this article, as I said back in 2010 is that employers should not use interns to do real work. 

Flash-forward to 2012. The New York Times over the weekend ran another piece on internships. This time, however, it was critical of employers who only assigned the interns menial tasks.

Although many internships provide valuable experience, some unpaid interns complain that they do menial work and learn little, raising questions about whether these positions violate federal rules governing such programs.

So, within the span of two years, you have two articles on internships: One critical of employers that assign unpaid interns real work and one critical of employers that assign unpaid interns menial work.

What’s an employer to do?  

Well, I talked quite a bit about this on Thursday on The Proactive Employer radio show and there were really two solutions (you can listen to the entire broadcast below).

First, if you’re going to have interns do real work, you can do so — you just need to pay them minimum wage.  Second, if keeping interns unpaid is important, it’s critical that employers follow six criteria outlined by the U.S. Department of Labor. 

The articles in The New York Times are well-timed to make sure that employers are aware of their obligations.  What I said back in 2010 holds true today: “As the summer season approaches, employers are now on notice that their use of interns is going to be under closer scrutiny than ever before. ”