Looking for a public relations internship? Look out for these red flags

Spring break is rolling around, and many companies and agencies will begin to interview applicants for summer internships.  While internships are a valuable career experience, it is also true that interns are sometimes exploited, even by reputable public relations agencies and companies.

Why do I care so much about intern rights?  For two reasons.  First of all, I was an intern once, and I do not like to see young people exploited.  Secondly, unpaid, illegal internships create an unfair competitive advantage that hurts my business, and all businesses.  I choose to abide by the law, but it is difficult to compete with companies that do not.

Here are some red flags that should alert prospective interns about the nature of the internships they are considering.

Red Flag #1: The internship is for a public relations agency or business, but it is unpaid.  By law, most internships should be paid.  There are few exceptions.  Certain types of nonprofits may elect not to pay their interns, although many do.  If your parents hire you as an intern, they don’t have to pay you, although many do.  And an agency or business may elect not to pay interns, but only if they are offering a primarily educational environment that meets several specific federal criteria.  I’ve not seen one that does.

Now, all internships are educational, just as all work experiences are educational.  Anyone working on a job is going to receive some coaching, instruction or training, and educational opportunities.  Just because an internship has an educational element does not mean it can be unpaid.

Public relations agencies, as a rule, do not offer internships like this (no matter what some may claim).  The internship has to deliver little to no value to the company.  The intern cannot perform work a paid employee would otherwise do.  And other criteria have to be met.

In general, if you see an agency or business offering an unpaid internship including any kind of job description, you can safely assume that is an illegal unpaid internship, and (1) they are unaware of federal laws governing employment (highly unlikely) or (2) they are capitalizing on the probability that prospective interns are unaware of their own employment rights (very likely).

Many otherwise reputable agencies and businesses have no qualms about exploiting interns.  There is almost no way to ensure compliance with the law.  Sad to say, this is real life.  Quality internships offer pay.  Avoid those that do not.

Red Flag #2: The agency or business offers “educational credit” in lieu of pay, or offers interns a choice of either pay OR educational credit.  I can tell you the name of a “reputable” public relations agency right now that is doing this, and I’ve called them on it, but they are blatantly continuing this practice.

It’s fine for an intern to earn educational credit, but the college or university decides if the internship qualifies for academic credit hours, not the agency or business.  Interns will have the to apply for, earn and pay for those credits.  The agency or business has very little to do with it, so it’s specious for them to offer this as an internship benefit.

Importantly, an internship cannot offer educational credit in lieu of paying interns.  Either an internship is primarily educational (meeting all Federal criteria, which is unlikely), or it is not, and should be paid (which is far more likely).

The same internship cannot offer these highly disparate experiences at at once.  Saying one internship can validly offer either a pay experience or a college credit experience is like saying a cat can be a dog.  It’s simply misleading.

Any company or agency that offers an internship like this is not in compliance with the law.  Further, there is no reason why an intern should not earn college credit, in addition to pay, since the college’s definition of an educational experience tends to be different from the more stringent Federal criteria.

For example, my paid internships were educational (as are practically all internships and job experiences).  However, they just did not meet the federal requirements for an unpaid internship, and hardly any internships do.  My interns definitely delivered value to my company, and they were paid, in addition to receiving coaching and mentoring from me.

For my interns to earn college credit, all I had to do was offer them the same internship experiences as my interns who were not earning college credit, fill out a form provided by the students, and sign it.  My company’s contribution to the college credit process was about 15 additional minutes of my time — not a very significant expenditure of resources, on my part!

Importantly, the interns who were earning credit (and who were also going to pay their colleges for those credits) earned the same hourly wage as the ones who did not.  It’s unfair (and illegal) to discriminate against credit-earning interns.

Red Flag #3: The internship offers a “stipend” described as an amount to cover expenses, such as transportation and lunch.  If the internship is not for a qualifying nonprofit organization, the company or agency is obliged to pay minimum wage, currently $7.25 per hour.

Nonprofits, such as Wolf Trap, for example, may choose to offer a stipend, which is typically offered monthly. Businesses and agencies may not offer interns a stipend!

What is a fair rate of compensation for qualified public relations interns?  That is a matter of opinion.  As I mentioned, the hourly rate cannot fall below minimum wage.  I have seen companies like CNN and Turner Broadcasting offer minimum wage compensation for public relation internships.  A few public relations agencies in DC advertise $10 per hour for full time internships.  Other agencies specify the internship is paid, but fail to specify the rate of pay.  Applicants should wonder: why not?  The hourly rate of pay should be fixed, just as the internship duration should be fixed, and that information should be transparent up front.

I paid my interns $15 per hour for their part-time internships, but I also paid for their professional development opportunities (seminars, networking events) and offered other benefits.  I have seen the $15 per hour wage offered by other companies and organizations.

In my opinion, minimum wage is too low a wage for the responsibilities and contributions expected of public relations interns.  Too me, minimum wage says: we place minimum value on interns.  Certainly, interns will not earn entry-level wages for their short-term internships, but I think $15 per hour (or $20 per hour for special skills) is fair compensation.

Red Flag #4: The internship is not of fixed duration.  The length of an internship should not be open-ended.  Per law, interns should know at the outset when the internship will begin, and when it will end.  In my opinion, an internship should last a maximum period of three months.  At the conclusion of that internship, if the employer wishes an intern to continue working, that person may then be hired either as a contractor (compensated hourly) or as a permanent employee, on a full or part-time basis.

For example, I hired summer interns.  At the conclusion of their internship, I offered them the opportunity to work on a temporary basis during their December break, as contractors, for an increased amount of pay.

An intern should not continue work as a contractor at internship-level wages.  They should be compensated at market rates commensurate with their experience and responsibilities.

Red Flag #5: There is a mention of possible future employment in the internship job description.  I see this often in internship job descriptions.  This is an illegal practice because it sets an expectation of reward that may not be delivered and defines a trial period of employment, under which the intern must be considered an employee.  Any “trial” period invalidates the internship.

Certainly, job offers are made to interns, at the conclusion of their internship.  But that is different from suggesting that a job may me available at the outset of an internship.  You have to wonder why an employer would suggest that at all?  I have found it is often intended to persuade an intern to accept a work arrangement without pay, or for other undesirable conditions.  The employer is counting on the naivete and inexperience of interns.

If an internship delivers a quality experience for a fair hourly amount of pay for a fixed period, that is all that should be promised to a prospective intern.  Applicants should be suspicious when any agency or business dangles the carrot of future employment in an internship job description.

Become Informed! Read the Fair Labor Standards Act Provisions Regarding Internships

Here are the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which all prospective interns should know.  Remember, people fought hard for fair employment rights.  These fights have gone to the Supreme Court and won.  When an intern waives his or her rights by applying for or accepting illegal unpaid internships, the violations continue.  Unfair hiring practices will only end when prospective interns refuse to accept less than their due.

The Test For Unpaid Interns

There are some circumstances under which individuals who participate in “for-profit” private sector internships or training programs may do so without compensation.  The Supreme Court has held that the term “suffer or permit to work” cannot be interpreted so as to make a person whose work serves only his or her own interest an employee of another who provides aid or instruction.  This may apply to interns who receive training for their own educational benefit if the training meets certain criteria.  The determination of whether an internship or training program meets this exclusion depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each such program.

The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:

  1. 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;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. 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;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

If all of the factors listed above are met, an employment relationship does not exist under the FLSA, and the Act’s minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the intern.  This exclusion from the definition of employment is necessarily quite narrow because the FLSA’s definition of “employ” is very broad.  Some of the most commonly discussed factors for “for-profit” private sector internship programs are considered below.

Similar To An Education Environment And The Primary Beneficiary Of The Activity

In general, the more an internship program is structured around a classroom or academic experience as opposed to the employer’s actual operations, the more likely the internship will be viewed as an extension of the individual’s educational experience (this often occurs where a college or university exercises oversight over the internship program and provides educational credit).  The more the internship provides the individual with skills that can be used in multiple employment settings, as opposed to skills particular to one employer’s operation, the more likely the intern would be viewed as receiving training.  Under these circumstances the intern does not perform the routine work of the business on a regular and recurring basis, and the business is not dependent upon the work of the intern.  On the other hand, if the interns are engaged in the operations of the employer or are performing productive work (for example, filing, performing other clerical work, or assisting customers), then the fact that they may be receiving some benefits in the form of a new skill or improved work habits will not exclude them from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements because the employer benefits from the interns’ work.

Displacement And Supervision Issues

If an employer uses interns as substitutes for regular workers or to augment its existing workforce during specific time periods, these interns should be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a workweek.  If the employer would have hired additional employees or required existing staff to work additional hours had the interns not performed the work, then the interns will be viewed as employees and entitled compensation under the FLSA.  Conversely, if the employer is providing job shadowing opportunities that allow an intern to learn certain functions under the close and constant supervision of regular employees, but the intern performs no or minimal work, the activity is more likely to be viewed as a bona fide education experience.  On the other hand, if the intern receives the same level of supervision as the employer’s regular workforce, this would suggest an employment relationship, rather than training.

Job Entitlement

The internship should be of a fixed duration, established prior to the outset of the internship.  Further, unpaid internships generally should not be used by the employer as a trial period for individuals seeking employment at the conclusion of the internship period.  If an intern is placed with the employer for a trial period with the expectatio

n that he or she will then be hired on a permanent basis, that individual generally would be considered an employee under the FLSA.

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About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a public relations and marketing consultant, and owns Fletcher Prince (www.FletcherPrince.com). Follow Mary on Twitter @FletcherPrince.

Posted on March 21, 2012, in Public Relations Tips and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I think your advice about an unpaid internship is good and I always pay my interns. But these days the reality is most organizations simply don’t have too pay interns, and they don’t. There are also many unpaid federal government internships. Internships are in high demand – and many organizations take advantage of it. – even the ones who could certainly afford to pay their interns. So where does that leave the kids who need experience but also need to make money? At a disadvantage when it comes time to look for a job. And where does that leave parents? Funding the internships.

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