Are Unpaid Social Media Internships Legal?


I laughed out loud for real when Todd Allen, author of the Drew Peterson-themed satirical graphic comic, Division and Rush, sent me the following link. It’s an April article from the New York Times questioning whether unpaid social-media internships are legal. I laughed because when I questioned the internships, myself, here on Carless back in February, more than a few Chicago media wonks warned me quietly not to rock the boat. So it’s always nice when none other than the U.S. Department of Labor makes you feel vindicated.

Written during my controversial exit from ChicagoNow, in my post, The Economic Damage of Social Media Internships, I pointedly questioned how a business relationship where workers were the ones imparting expertise to companies–and not the other way around–could be considered an internship. I wrote in part:

Organizations are supposed to add value to interns, not the other way around. If social media interns–good ones–are bringing to the table critical skills and knowledge that will qualitatively improve the organizations that engage them, they should be paid fairly for their services. In this case, that means whatever the going local rate is for professional Internet marketing services in the private sector.”

I also lambasted the Chicago foundation scene for coaching cash-strapped nonprofits to offer social-media internships as a way to gain institutional knowledge about Internet community-building from young underpaid experts. To be frank, I was talking about the Chicago Community Trust–which did not go unnoticed by them, since I was already on their radar screen for having publicly questioned the worth of their consultant-managed 2009 Community News Matters grant awards. My continued criticism led my outgoing ChicagoNow editor to warn me that not marching in step with the Trust probably meant I’d “never work in nonprofit in this town again.” (Hurray, I thought at the time. Maybe I’ll finally have a job with health insurance.)

Turns out I was on to something. As told in the Times article, the U.S. Department of Labor has been scrutinizing unpaid internships all year. And as far as Uncle Sam is concerned, unpaid internships require that the benefits accrue to the intern, not the company offering the internship.

A June article from CNN/Money makes things clearer, specifically laying out the criteria the federal government uses when deciding whether an internship is really an internship. Among them:

  • The working environment must be a learning environment for the intern;
  • The experience should be for the benefit of the intern;
  • Interns should not displace regular employees; and perhaps most important of all
  • Companies should derive no immediate, bottom-line benefit from an intern’s activities.

If any of the above criteria are not satisfied, the federal government will automatically recognize the worker as a regular employee–requiring them to be paid market rate for what, as it turns out in actuality, are their professional services.

And I can’t think of any way that asking an Internet community-building expert (read: every college student in America) to work for your nonprofit or commercial business for free or very nearly in order to build or manage a highly added-value corporate social media presence can satisfy any of those criteria. Can you?

Or to paraphrase the CNN/Money article, a company can’t exploit you even if you agree to let them do it. Which, of course, is exactly what I said about unpaid social-media internships five months ago. Yes, that’s an “I told you so.”

I can live with it.

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What do you think?