An internship is often considered a rite of passage for those who are approaching the end of their college degree program and want work experience to bolster their resume. Internships come in both paid and unpaid varieties, and can often be used to earn college credit. But new court rulings on internships could make the unpaid toiling of students a thing of the past.

Unpaid internships: beneficial or illegal?

In 2010, the film “Black Swan” was released. It garnered an impressive box office take and a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. During filming, Fox Searchlight Pictures made use of interns to take lunch orders, answer phones, file papers and make photocopies, among other similar activities. In June 2013, a federal court ruled that Fox Searchlight violated both minimum wage and overtime labor laws by not paying the interns for the work they did while on the set, according to ProPublica.

It is a legal precedent that has already seen intense debate and more legal filings. Two days after the federal ruling on “Black Swan,” former interns for The New Yorker and W Magazine sued parent company Condé Nast Publications over being paid less than minimum wage for their work, according to The Huffington Post. Shortly after that, another lawsuit was filed, this one against Atlantic Records and Warner Music Group for taking advantage of an intern’s work without offering pay or educational experience in exchange for his duties, according to International Business Times.

Unpaid internships aren’t inherently unlawful. According to the United States Department of Labor, they can be entirely legal as long as they meet six specific guidelines:

  1. Though the internship might benefit the employer, the training given to the intern is similar to the training given in an educational environment.
  2. The internship clearly benefits the intern.
  3. Regular employees are not displaced from their jobs, and the intern works under staff supervision.
  4. The employer receives no immediate advantage from hiring the intern, and in fact, company activities might be impeded by the presence of the intern.
  5. The internship is not a guarantee or suggestion of employment after the internship is over.
  6. Both the employer and the intern understand and agree that no wages will be awarded to the intern for the internship.

Many unpaid internships do comply with these six criteria, but the legalities surrounding them could stay in the spotlight for quite some time, as the number of paid internships appears to be dropping. Five years ago, 75 percent of employer respondents to a Collegiate Employment Research Institute survey [PDF] said they offered paid positions for interns. In the 2012 survey, that number had dropped to 66 percent. Today, anywhere between 20 and 25 percent of all internships offered are unpaid.

Why unpaid internships still matter

With these lawsuits suddenly changing the landscape of internships, should students still accept unpaid positions? Though there is an obvious advantage of a paycheck with a paid internship, unpaid positions have their own perks, according to The Savvy Intern. They can offer valuable work experience, provide you with college credit, serve as your foot in the door and open up networking opportunities in your community, which can be very valuable for anyone, but especially those who are engaged in distance learning.

Some may even allow for limited benefits, as well as little pluses like free parking, a stipend for lunches and other small concessions that help you balance out a tight budget. Unpaid internships can also offer more flexible hours, a lighter workload and a better opportunity to learn about the business.

But perhaps most importantly, unpaid internships tend to be more readily available than paid ones. That means that if you are looking for valuable experience in your field, an unpaid internship might offer you a chance to work now for a bigger payoff later.

In some fields, the unpaid internship might actually be all you can get. This is especially true in areas such as fashion, broadcasting and journalism reports The Savvy Intern, where paying your dues is part of the industry culture. In these cases, unpaid internships can be the norm, and employers may fully expect to see them on a resume.

How to protect yourself from overreaching internships

If you do accept an unpaid internship, how can you make sure that your new job isn’t crossing any legal lines? Start by knowing the law when you sit down to negotiate the terms of your internship. Don’t accept an internship that creates a valuable situation for the company but leaves your education lacking — remember, the internship is supposed to benefit you.

Keep a log of the hours you work and the work you complete while you are on the clock. Get your internship agreement in writing, and adhere to it as closely as possible. Remember that your internship really is a job, even if you aren’t getting paid, and you should treat it as such.

Finally, don’t forget your schoolwork. No internship can make up for mediocre grades, so if you sense your marks are starting to slip, it’s time to give a second thought to whether an internship — paid or not — is right for you at this point in your college career.

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