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Unpaid internships are on the rise again
Being an intern just became a lot harder for poor people again. - photo by JJ Feinauer
Being an intern can be hard work. It often requires temporarily relocating to a large city, with a high cost of living, only to be out of a job in a matter of months, sometimes even weeks.

In the world of internships, stability is often little more than the pipe dream of a potential future.

But in 2013, a federal judge ruled that at least one part of the internship experience was simply unfair: the lack of pay.

Unpaid internships are a staple of many corporations looking for cheap labor, and according to Judge William H. Pauley, such an approach is often a violation of labor laws.

But Pauley's ruling, that was related to a specific case involving interns working on 20th Century Fox's film "Black Swan," was recently overturned, causing some to wonder if internships are once again set up to exploit young, unexperienced workers.

As The New York Times reported July 2, a higher court has now ruled that interns can remain unpaid "when the work serves an educational purpose." A ruling that, while on the surface appears uncontroversial, acts as a reversal of Pauley's original ruling.

According to The Times, Pauley cited certain guidelines established by the Labor Department to specify when an internship can legally go unpaid. Among them is the stipulation that the internship must "be similar to training offered in a school setting." The new ruling argues, according to The Times, that such a restriction is "both out of date and not binding on federal courts."

What has been placed in its stead is more of a test of "benefits." According to the new ruling, the intern must benefit more from the work than the employer, or, in other words, it must be an educational experience.

Such parameters make it easier for further exploitation by employers, according to Forbes' Susan Adams, especially among college students.

"The ruling paves the way for employers to make deals with educational institutions for school credit," Adams wrote in reaction to the ruling, "perpetuating a system that exploits student labor, takes jobs from would-be entry-level workers, favors the privileged who can afford to make no money and flouts the basic tenet of the FLSA, that people who work deserve to get paid at least a minimum wage."

As I wrote at the time of the initial court ruling, there has long been a debate about the validity of unpaid internships, casting some doubt on the validity of "education" as a good justification for lack of payment.

For example, Jordan Weissman, writing in The Atlantic, argued the perception that unpaid internships lead to jobs isn't supported by data.

"Though a few receive long-term offers from their employers," Weissman wrote in 2013, "unpaid interns generally don't outperform non-interns in the job search."

It has also been argued unpaid internships provide experience and networking to those who already have a privileged background. Because many internships take place in major cities with high rent costs, such as Washington, D.C., and New York City, students who struggle financially have a much harder time justifying or even contemplating unpaid work.

"No matter how prestigious an internship is, if it doesn't pay, many students can't take it because they can't afford to," Mic's Laua Franta-Abdalla wrote in March 2014. "Unfortunately, these are usually the very candidates who would benefit the most from networking because they don't already have a leg up."
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