After Winning $15, Sawant Targets Unpaid Internships

After Winning $15, Sawant Targets Unpaid Internships

After Winning $15, Sawant Targets Unpaid Internships

Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant has found a new pet project to reduce opportunities for students seeking to enter the workforce. The soapbox-loving $15 Now Socialist recently preached at the University of Washington Social Work graduation ceremony on the need to terminate university-required, unpaid “practicums” or internships. Unbeknownst to her, however, these so-called “abominations” are often a golden ticket for students seeking to stand out to prospective employers.

Unpaid internships have become the new norm as students seek to get a leg up on finding work post-graduation. Increasingly, an expensive Bachelor’s degree is required — but not sufficient —for new job-seekers. Today, educated Millennials without basic job experience are constrained in entry-level jobs, and it’s hard to underestimate the value of practical work experience, paid or not.

Freedom Foundation’s own labor policy analyst Maxford Nelsen began as an unpaid college intern at the Washington Policy Center in Spokane. The internship provided experience in research, publication and networking which gave Nelsen an edge coming out of college. Most importantly, his work experience demonstrated to prospective employers he was serious in pursuing his passions.

Student practicums are a win-win for employers as well. Fox News investigative journalist John Stossel has employed hundreds of student interns, offering invaluable experience in unpaid positions. He explained, “My interns learned a lot. Many went on to successful careers in journalism. One won a Pulitzer Prize. Many said they learned more working for me than at college (despite $50,000 tuition). They benefited and I benefitted.”

But if Sawant encourages young adults to gather their pitchforks, those already hard to come by internships could disappear. The youth unemployment crisis will not be solved by ordinances to raise the minimum wage or suing businesses into paying their interns. If employers have to pay unskilled interns as though they are regular employees, the opportunities for any internship will dwindle.

The Fair Labors Standards Act already safeguards unpaid interns’ workplace rights and safety in the “for-profit” private sector. In order for an employer to offer unpaid internships, they must meet a six-point test:

  • The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

  • the internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

  • the intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

  • the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;

  • the intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

  • the employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Sawant is not the only challenge to the existence of unpaid internships. Last year, a federal district judge ruled in favor of two unpaid interns on the Hollywood production of Black Swan when Fox Searchlight Pictures did not compensate the interns for their time. Manhattan Judge William Pauley’s use and interpretation of the six-point test could be the beginning to a series of lawsuits coming from disgruntled interns. Understandably, companies will think twice before continuing their internship programs.

It remains to be seen whether Sawant will also attack unpaid internships being offered by non-profit progressive groups in Washington, such as the National Abortion Rights Action League Pro-Choice, or the unpaid internships with the Seattle City Council.

Maybe the council member can pull some strings at a Seattle McDonalds location for these over-educated college students once they can no longer get job experience—that is, if McDonald’s is still hiring at $15 an hour.


Vice President for News and Information
Jeff is a native of West Virginia and a graduate of West Virginia University with a degree in journalism. He served in the U.S. Army at Fort Lewis, Wash., as a broadcast journalist and has worked at a number of newspapers in West Virginia and Washington. Most recently, he spent 11 years as editor of the Port Orchard (Wash.) Independent, which earned the 2011 Washington Newspaper Publishers’ Association’s General Excellence Award as the top community newspaper in Washington. Previously, he was editor of the Business Examiner newspaper in Tacoma, Wash., for seven years. Jeff lives in Lacey; he and his wife have grown twin daughters.