'Will Work for Free'... the New Standard?

Work For Free When is a job not a job? The answer is, when you work for free ... otherwise known as an unpaid internship.

The subject of internships has been in the news quite a bit recently thanks to Charlie Sheen's Twitter search for a social media intern resulting in close to 75,000 applications. Add to that a job market still mired in steep unemployment figures, last reported at 13.5 million. So, what's a desperate worker to do?

You could take a page out of Malibu, Calif., resident Ashley St. Johns-Jacobs' book. At 40, she has done what no self-respecting professional would think of: She works for no pay! As an unpaid intern, she is one of at least 100 in the city attorney's office who spends full days prosecuting everything from thefts to domestic violence and drunken driving.

"If it wasn't for this program, we wouldn't have a criminal division," Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich told the Los Angeles Times. Trutanich created the Reserve Deputy Program when the department made huge budget cuts. In return for no compensation, these interns get to work on cases that, pre-recession, would have gone to paid attorneys.

Why, you ask, would anyone voluntarily do this? As San Bernadino, Calif., resident, Malena Castillo puts it, "It's a chance to get back in the routine and use my skills so I don't lose them. And the longer you're out of work, the harder it is to get someone to hire you."

But, where there is free labor, there is the potential for abuse, something the Labor Department tracks carefully. "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," Nancy J. Leppink, the Labor Department's acting director of the Wage and Hour Division, told the New York Times.

But, it seems, employers are doing just that. "I recently graduated from a corporate communications graduate program, and have just come off of a paid internship, " says public relations specialist Stephanie Greenall. "As I search for an entry-level job, I continue to get unpaid internships because organizations find it easier to hire a cheap intern rather than a full-time employee," she adds.

"Companies are trying to take advantage of a situation where they need to get work done but they can't afford it because their budgets aren't what they used to be," says Richard Bottner, president of Intern Bridge, a nonprofit that does research on internships.

And that's not all. "A serious problem surrounding unpaid interns is that they [interns] are often not considered employees and therefore are not protected by employment discrimination laws," says Kathyrn Edwards, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute and co-author of a new study on internships. Case in point: a female intern who brought a sexual harassment complaint that was dismissed because the intern was not an employee.

And therein lies the dilemma. Stay at home and feel disconnected, or do a regular job for no pay, no benefits and no protection. Of course, employers will say that an internship makes you a perfect candidate for when the company does have a job opening. Unfortunately, there are never any guarantees that internships will lead to employment.


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