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Government: Here to help unpaid interns?

Ronald Reagan used to say that the nine scariest words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

So it’s a safe bet that he wouldn’t have supported the U.S. Department of Labor’s decision last year to help unpaid interns by threatening their employers.

And you shouldn’t, either—even if, like my mother, you think “Ronald Reagan” constitutes the scariest name in any language. I’ll explain why in a minute.

First, though, pop quiz. There are two unpaid internships: One in which you get to prepare a marketing campaign and then pitch it to a Fortune 500 CEO, and another in which you sit in a chair and read a book about the history of marketing campaigns. Which sounds better? And which one is legal under current law?

You guessed it. According to government guidelines released in April 2010, unpaid interns must engage in work that could reasonably be performed in an educational environment and is of “no immediate advantage” to the employer—and at times may impede the employer’s work. The employer also cannot promise future employment as a reward for interns.

Save for a few politicians and the Minnesota Twins’ pitching staff, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone who, at zero pay, would be more of a burden to their employer than a benefit.

Why are these requirements so bonkers? Because they’re archaic. They seem to apply to a time when interns were mostly apprentices in factories or additional hands-on farms and required the additional help. Until last year, the government did not meddle with unpaid internships much. Violations didn’t get reported, and as a result, companies in violation didn’t get investigated.

But the spotlight recently placed on unpaid internships has labor officials in multiple states promising crackdowns on violators of the current law. Of course, that’s just about everybody. The result will be cutbacks in internship programs.

And that’s not good for anybody.

When I reached out to Willy Franzen—who is the founder of the One Day, One Internship and One Day, One Job blogs—I was expecting pushback. Franzen is hardly an apologist for the devious internship practices of corporate America—in fact, he wrote a passionate blog post positing that unpaid internships are unethical. But instead of telling me why they should be banned, he said while additional government regulation sounds good, it would be “very disruptive.”

Faced with a ban, bosses could offer a few very competitive paid internships, Franzen explained, or simply end their internship programs altogether.

Neither would be good news, especially for the low-income students who advocates of a ban often claim to be looking out for. The few paid internships that are offered are likely to go to kids whose daddy or mommy knows the boss. Moreover, the wage rate for the average paid internship will go down, so students who were hoping to spend the summer in Hollywood for their dream internship will have to do so on minimum wage.

It is true and unfortunate that many unpaid internships are out of reach for low-income students who can’t afford to take them. But a job that doesn’t exist is no better than an unpaid one.

Maybe I’m just being cynical. After all, one strong advocate of a government ban, Ross Perlin, wrote me in an email that government regulation would cause companies to alter their policy toward interns. He said a ban would be “tantamount to ensuring a minimum wage for this subset of workers.” Since minimum wage legislation is usually successful, he said, this would work, too.

But the minimum wage works because (most) employers can’t get by without people working for them. If they have to fork up seven bucks an hour, so be it. It is unclear that the same necessity exists for interns who are currently unpaid. And if the argument for enforcement rests on employers having some dire need for 20-year-olds to get them Starbucks, well, I’m not convinced.

College students ambitious enough to secure internships should know what they’re in for when they sign up for a summer job without pay. If they don’t like it, unlike slaves, indentured servants or the other peers detractors have compared them to, interns are always free to leave. As Franzen explained, prospective interns—like other employees—should assess their value to the company and demand it from employers.

But if the government insists on trying to help, here’s an idea for President Obama, humbly presented by someone who isn’t on the payroll but still wants to contribute (call me an illegal unpaid intern): Tell the Department of Labor to stop trying to enforce an unenforceable set of regulations. Ask Congress to allocate the fortune that would have undoubtedly been spent on this futile undertaking for a tax credit to go to cash-strapped startups that hire paid interns, promoting two of your main priorities—corporate innovation and education.

Just so long as I’m not the unpaid intern who is asked to mail the checks.

Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior.

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