(Photo by Peter Taylor/Getty Images for Clinique)
Cara Newlon, USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent
Most college students hope to return to their fall semesters with some summer savings and a fresh internship on their résumé. Many undergraduates, however, can find only unpaid internships.
"The internships are 40 people doing entry-level jobs for free," says Mikey Franklin, co-founder of the Fair Pay Campaign. "The good internships are only for people who can afford to work for free."
Franklin and his organization are attempting to lobby for legislation that would mandate pay for an intern's labor. Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, internships at for-profit companies can be unpaid if the internship is "for the benefit of the intern" and "similar to training which would be given in an educational environment."
Robert Shindell, a vice president at Intern Bridge, estimates that a million undergraduates take internships each year - 20% of which are unpaid with no academic credit.
Students can be unpaid in positions as prestigious as the White House internships. Roger Hickey - co-director of the Campaign for America's Future - started a petition on Moveon.org.
"Where can an adult work 50 hours for no pay in 2013?" the petition asks. "The White House Intern program."
White House interns have a range of responsibilities: researching, writing memos and staffing events. The petition has about 8,500 signatures. "That is real work, Mr. President," the petition reads. "It's not equivalent to a semester in college."
Unpaid internships, according to Franklin, are more common in "creative" fields such as film, fashion and politics. "People whose parents are wealthy can work hard to get ahead, but people who don't have connections get screwed, essentially," Franklin says. "If you want to get ahead...you have to work for free."
Christina Isnardi, a junior at NYU, co-founded the organization Fair Pay for Interns and started an online petition at her school to remove unpaid internship opportunities from its CareerNet. The summer after her freshman year, Isnardi interned at a local production company. "When I got to the place, it was extremely illegitimate and exploitative. My employer, he basically used me for free labor," she said in an interview with NYULocal. "I had a friend who had to wash dishes for a film company."
Two interns on the set of Black Swan sued Fox Searchlight Pictures in September 2011, alleging they did basic tasks undertaken by regular entry-level employees - chores such as fetching coffee and answering phones. The Federal District Court ruled in favor of the interns last June.
"Searchlight received the benefits of their unpaid work, which otherwise would have required paid employees," wrote Judge William H. Pauley III in his ruling.
"(That was) a real pioneering case," Franklin says. "There are strict legal guidelines. If you're doing the work of a for-profit company, it is eminently clear that you should get paid. It is abundantly clear."
A series of suits followed the Black Swan case. In February 2012, an ex-Harper's Bazaar intern sued Hearst Magazines.
Two interns sued Condé Nast for compensation this June. Lauren Wallinger, a former W magazine intern, alleges she received $12 a day. Matthew Leib, who interned at The New Yorker in 2009 and 2010, received $300 to $500 for each summer internship.
In June, an unpaid intern sued Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records. Last month, a group of Gawker Media interns filed a similar suit. And this week, a former intern sued Donna Karen International.
These companies argue their competitive internships benefit the students. But for many parents - and students - these internships prove too expensive.
"I hear a lot, in particular, from parents who are outraged," Franklin says. "(They) can't afford to put (their) kid through an unpaid internship."
Cara Newlon is a senior at Brown University.
USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent