As 2012 wound down, one piece of higher-ed news drew attention to a subject that matters to many college students: unpaid internships. On December 20, Charlie Rose's production team agreed to pay a maximum of $250,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by former interns. Led by Wesleyan alumna Lucy Bickerton, the group claimed that Rose and his team had violated New York State's minimum-wage laws by not paying them a salary. This is one of many such lawsuits: similar charges have been brought against the Hearst Corporation and Fox Searchlight, and one can expect that the Rose case will pressure these venerable corporations to settle as well.
The real story here, however, is the relative rarity of challenges to unpaid internships. Recall the Obama administration's much-ballyhooed directive against the practice. In April 2010, the Department of Labor released a "fact sheet" informing employers that they could only offer unpaid internships if the experience met these criteria: the internship needed to be educational and beneficial to the intern, the intern could not replace regular employees, the intern was not guaranteed a job at the internship's end, and both the employer and intern knew that the intern would not receive any wages. If the internship did not meet these requirements, the employer was in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and was required to pay its interns. The DoL pledged to enforce this directive vigorously.
However, despite the DOL's hiring of 250 investigators to support this objective, no such enforcement came. In an interview, Edwin Koc of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, a group that tracks trends in undergraduate employment, claimed that the Department of Labor does not pressure employers and college career counselors to stop promoting unpaid internships. The DOL has acknowledged as much, stating it lacks both the "resources" and the data to launch a serious crackdown. As we've now come to expect, the administration's stance shows no sign of becoming mandatory any time soon.