Two universities shift away from unpaid internships

Students walk by a New York University building on March 9. (Credit: Rachael Levy)

The tides are slowly shifting for unpaid interns. As labor lawsuits become increasingly common, two New York universities announced last month that they had changed their internship policies.

New York University has ramped up oversight on internship postings to its career site, the school announced last month (NYU implemented the changes in the fall). Soon after, Columbia University announced it would stop offering credit for unpaid internships.

“This is the next stage,” said Eric Glatt, one in a group of unpaid interns who sued Fox Searchlight. A judge ruled in favor of the interns last year; Fox Searchlight is appealing. “Once more and more schools are forced to realize they play a role in this, that’s going to be the next pressure point.”

Last October, Condé Nast announced it would end its internship program after two former interns brought a class-action suit, claiming they had been paid below minimum wage at The New Yorker and W Magazine.

For now, Condé Nast seems to be the only company that has abandoned the practice. Several other media companies – including Gawker Media, Slate, VICE, Mother Jones and The Nation – have recently started paying at least the minimum wage for positions that were previously unpaid or paid below minimum wage, according to a report by advocacy group Intern Labor Rights.

The pendulum now appears to be swinging toward universities.

The NYU Wasserman Center for Career Development is now asking employers to confirm that internships comply with federal labor law before posting on NYU’s career site, which had previously listed internships as only “paid” or “unpaid.” Current options are now listed using the following terms: “paid,” “unpaid in compliance with NYU and Department of Labor guidelines,” “both paid and academic credit,” “academic credit” and “stipend.”

NYU’s policy change came in the wake of a student petition started by junior Christina Isnardi, 20, who had completed four unpaid internships. For one of them, she said she paid NYU $1,200 in tuition.

Isnardi started a petition last spring for the university to “stop posting illegal unpaid internships.” The petition received more than 1,000 signatures.

“I just remember how exploited I felt,” Isnardi said. “And it wasn’t just me feeling exploited. It was in the law already. Now we just have to enforce the law.”

Under labor law, interns at for-profit companies must be paid the minimum wage unless the internship meets certain criteria set by the Labor Department. Internships in government and non-profits are generally not covered.

Still, Isnardi said she wanted the university to favor paid internships across all sectors of the economy.

“The paid opportunities are optimal so why would we be pushing unpaid ones?” she said, adding that NYU’s move was at least a step in the right direction.

The numbers for internship postings fluctuate like “gas prices” from month to month, NYU spokesman James Devitt said. Earlier this month, about 1,100 internship listings promised payment of at least minimum wage, while 750 postings were unpaid. In February 2013, about 600 paid internships and 380 unpaid internships were posted, according to NYU data.

At Columbia, students whose unpaid internships required university approval could apply for a registration credit, which was free and was not applied to the student’s degree.

Peter Sterne, 22, a Columbia senior who has written about the registration credit for Columbia’s student publications, said the move should encourage employers to pay interns.

“The Columbia credit isn’t real credit and the distinction whether an internship is legal or illegal doesn’t come down to credit,” Sterne said.

Christina Isnardi, a junior at New York University who petitioned the school to change its internship posting policy, works at her computer on campus on March 5. (Credit: Rachael Levy)
Christina Isnardi, a junior at New York University, petitioned the school to change its internship posting policy. (Credit: Rachael Levy/March 5)

Sterne said he wasn’t sure why Columbia made its change now and that he wasn’t aware of any student groups that had been pushing for the change. Columbia spokeswoman Katherine Cutler said the change was not related to NYU and declined to elaborate further.

Columbia said in a statement to students that the school expects companies “to appropriately compensate students for work performed during internships” and that the “new policy is one adopted by many of our peer institutions.”

Columbia’s changes affect only Columbia College, The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Columbia School of General Studies.

Not everyone agrees with the changes in policy. Internships can provide students with a way to get invaluable professional experience that can help lead to jobs, some students, educators and career placement officials argue.  Tara Khorti, 19, a sophomore studying business at N.Y.U., for example, said she thought interning for free should be a student’s choice.

“These policies that the schools are implementing are not going to change the companies,” Khorti said.

NYU students can still receive academic credit for unpaid internships (the students pay tuition for it). Devitt, the NYU spokesman, said he was not aware of any plans to change that policy.

Editor’s note and clarification: The story, when first published, contained a sentence, which was accurate but unclear: “Under labor law, many unpaid internships in the for-profit sector are illegal.”  In fact, some unpaid internships in for profit companies are permitted, according to the Department of Labor, but only if they meet six specific criteria. For more information, click here:

However,  according to Sally Abrahamson, a lawyer at Outten & Golden, which filed the Fox Searchlight case, the standards that unpaid internships in the for-profit sector must meet to be considered legal are very high.  The program would have to be run “like a vocational program” and at no benefit to the employer, Abrahamson said.