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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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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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5 replies

  1. Enjoyed your piece. I do think ChicagoNow thinks of their bloggers as volunteers, not interns…at least that’s they way I look at it. As for the comment above, I’ve wrestled with the idea that bloggers are scabs, giving away their craft with little or no pay in return,…as more and more journalists lose their traditional jobs. That said, I am a blogger…for a number of reasons, chief among them to help the Tribune stay afloat. I like to think that I am helping save the jobs of Tribune employees…and am gaining valuable experience and knowledge in the process. I’ll agree it ‘s not for everyone. It works for me. I’m a stay-at-home mom who one day will return to the workforce and so this type of experience can only help me, too. I’m sure you can find some good things, too, that came from your time at CN. Keep on blogging!

  2. Completely agreed and kudos to you for speaking your mind. It seems as if many organizations are taking advantage of the unemployment rate, trading work for “exposure.” It seems a lukewarm argument, at best. As for ChicagoNow, to quote Neil Young, “Better to burn out than to fade away.”

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