This article was originally published in the student-run Daily Cal.
The hours burned by as Anuraag Kumar scurried around California Memorial Stadium with hot summer rays beating on his back. But instead of a football, the UC Berkeley sophomore was carrying medical supplies.For about thirty hours every week during the summer 2013 football training camp, Kumar set up equipment and assisted physicians as a Cal Athletics intern. It’s an invaluable experience for a premedical student, he said, but there was one catch: it was unpaid. “It’s pretty exhausting,” Kumar said. “It’s difficult to work so many hours a week unpaid and still find time for a paid opportunity.”
Combating competition and economic decline, college students are increasingly struggling to find work and take on unpaid internships. The ubiquity of the latter follows the economy’s shift in the past few decades toward more casual employment, said Katie Quan, the associate chair of UC Berkeley Labor Center.
“It’s very hard to find a paid internship that will also give you experience for med school,” Kumar said. “Not doing them puts you at a disadvantage.”
Despite their prevalence, unpaid interns are not protected in the same way as paid employees are, leaving room for potential exploitation. California State Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, introduced a bill in January that would give unpaid interns the same protections from discrimination and sexual harassment as paid employees. The bill, currently in committee, came in response to a New York federal judge’s ruling last fall that a Syracuse University student could not sue the company where she was an unpaid intern for sexual harassment because she did not count as an employee. “The recession has forced young people to rely on these unpaid positions to build resumes and contacts,” Skinner said in a statement. “Employers owe them a safe and fair workplace.”
Unpaid internships dominated headlines last summer after unpaid interns sued a number of high-profile companies including NBC Universal, Sony and Condé Nast, claiming they suffered minimum wage violations from not being assigned different jobs than paid employees and not receiving training in an educational environment—two of the requirements for unpaid workers set by the US Department of Labor. The wave of suits provoked discussion not only about the lack of legal protection for interns but, more importantly, the value of unpaid internships.
Many students still see unpaid internships as necessary to break into certain industries, particularly nontechnical fields such as government and media, where paid opportunities can be scarce. Anna Shen, a UC Berkeley senior majoring in political science, started interning—unpaid—for a Berkeley City Council member last fall, bolstering her interest in working in the public sector. “Even in freshman year, everyone was getting internships,” Shen said. “The expectation was if you don’t get an internship by junior year, you have nothing to show when you graduate, and you won’t get hired.”