unpaid internships, travel stipends, and revoked agreements

A reader writes:

I recently accepted a position as an unpaid intern at a nonprofit. Fresh out of grad school  with an MA and a significant amount of debt, at my interview I requested that I be reimbursed for travel. The person who hired me agreed to compensate me; the amount added up to about $15 a week, which was a significant sum to me at the time.

After a month at the internship during which I was doing perfectly adequate work and gearing up to start an independent project, my supervisor set up a meeting with me. She praised my work and then told me that they just passed a new budget and could no longer compensate me for travel. I told her that I still wanted to stay at the internship, but would have to reduce the number of days that I came in from twice a week to once a week.

When I came back after the weekend my supervisor told me that since I was no longer coming in for 15 hours a week I was not satisfying the minimal requirements for the internship and that I had to either come in twice a week as before or stop coming in. I explained again that I could not afford to pay money to work, thanked her for the opportunity and left the internship.

I think that my supervisor should have found the $60 a month in the budget rather than rescind my travel stipend and feel completely justified in terminating the internship since they reneged on our agreement. (She managed to find $50 for a gift certificate to B&N to give me as a going away gift, which I would have gladly traded for another month of experience). I also feel that there’s something exploitative about employers not providing a basic stipend (travel and possibly lunch) even in an unpaid internship. I understand that I am gaining experience, but I am also contributing value to your organization or company and I should not have to pay to work for you! This is the norm for nonprofit organizations. I wanted to know how you feel about what happened to me and about the state of the unpaid internship in general.

I’m sorry this happened to you! On the bright side though, it sounds like you learned something extra from this internship: that you’ve got to get every part of a job offer in writing. Must, must, must. Employers can still change the terms of your employment later on, even with a written offer (unless you have a contract, which most people don’t), but getting your offer in writing dramatically strengthens the likelihood that the terms of your employment will be what you agreed to. After all, what if your interviewer agrees to give you Tuesday afternoons off, but she leaves the company a few weeks later and her replacement doesn’t know anything about that agreement and doesn’t care to stick to it? Being able to show a written agreement in that context isn’t foolproof, but it’s hugely helpful. So next time do that.

As for this particular situation, I’m skeptical that your manager couldn’t find the $60/month for your travel stipend. That’s pretty unlikely. What’s more likely is that that one of the following happened:

1. Someone in that organization is very rules-oriented and insisted on enforcing their “we don’t do travel stipends” policy, despite the fact that they’d already promised it to you. And/or they got concerned about doing a travel stipend for one intern but not for others.

2. Your manager was unhappy with your work and as a result became annoyed that they were paying your travel expenses, and wasn’t honest enough to talk to you about her concerns. (I have no idea if this was the case — but describing your own work as “perfectly adequate” isn’t necessarily a great sign.)

3. Your manager is simply inept and bumbling.

I don’t know which of these three it is, but those are your most likely possibilities. Regardless, I agree that you were justified in withdrawing from the internship once they changed the terms.

As for unpaid internships in general, well, they’re not for everyone. They can be great at a stage in your career when being able to put that experience on your resume can make the difference between getting interviews and not getting interviews. So they often have real value. But they’re not feasible for everyone, since not everyone is in a position to work for free or is willing to. (On the other hand, if you’re not working anyway because no one will hire you, taking an unpaid internship might be a way to change that.)

Really, you need to decide for yourself if you’re interested in doing an unpaid internship or not; either decision is legitimate. I disagree that they’re exploitative though; no one is making you take the job, and you’re entering into the agreement with full understanding and of your own free will. And I’ve heard from way more people who are glad they did their unpaid internships than who aren’t.

Additionally, volunteerism is a big element in nonprofit work, and unpaid internships are in many respects longer-term structured volunteer roles, with the added benefit that they can be real resume builders. (This assumes you’re interning at a nonprofit, of course, as unpaid labor at for-profit employers is illegal unless the net benefit is to the volunteer.)

Really, the issue you’ve got here isn’t about unpaid internships; it’s about the terms of your employment being changed on you — at which point it was completely reasonable to walk away.

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Kristin*

    I think the whole concept of unpaid internships is ridiculous- in most cases, the employer benefits MUCH more than the intern. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to expect companies to at least pay minimum wage for interns (even if they’re getting school credit)- they still need to eat and pay for transportation. Hopefully the original poster at least learned from the experience (maybe more “professional life lessons” than the actual job, but still…).

    I just did a very low-paid ($20/day for 5 days) internship, and I’ve been out of school for four years. I was laid off from my job a few weeks ago, and the internship looked fun- it was helping out with PR coverage for the Royal Wedding. I ended up getting what I wanted out of it- an interview for a job I really wanted at the company!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think it’s true that at least in nonprofit internships, the employer benefits quite a bit (which is legal). But often those internships wouldn’t exist at all if they needed to be paid, so then the question becomes: Is it better for no one to have the opportunity to do those internships? I’d argue no. The people who do them are doing them willingly and often very gratefully.

      1. Kristin*

        Yeah, I think they can good for the non-profit industry, if the non-profit can provide a valuable learning experience for the intern. But in New York City, in the magazine/publishing industry, they’re a nightmare. Most are unpaid, most require college credit, and most involve tasks that aren’t at all related to the editorial work the interns want to do. I can’t even imagine what people must go through to get into those industries- NYC’s expensive! And based on what I experienced during my short internship here- the employer benefitted WAY more. My tasks were things like running errands, making copies, and organizing props- not exactly PR related.

        The two internships I did in college were paid and at for-profits. Both were extremely valuable to me- I got a ton of writing experience, filled up a portfolio of work samples, and learned a lot. But I was also valuable for them- the press releases I wrote were picked up and published in local papers; I was younger than my employers and knew more about blogging (during a time when they had a blog-related pr “crisis.”).

        I think internships can be a good thing if both the employer and the intern make an effort to make it a valuable experience. Employers should be thorough in the hiring process. There are PLENTY of qualified students who can be assets. Employers should act as mentors to the interns. Interns should treat it as if it’s an actual job. It’s a lot easier to mentally do that when they’re getting paid and actually learning something.

        1. Pub Intern*

          The publishing industry in NYC really is a nightmare when it comes to internships. There are a handful of amazing, paid internships lurking out there, but a majority of them are unpaid. Many of them limit themselves to students and for-credit only in order to avoid winding up illegal. I’ve had four internships in a row now.

          First was non-for-profit and was fine. A good combination of stimulating work and mundane tasks. They really tended to their intern program with weekly meetings and everything. They even gave us a surprise stipend at the end.

          Second was for-profit, but it also had a stipend. Again, an amazing combination of work that really helped me to learn about the industry.

          Third and fourth were for-profit and completely unpaid. I’ve had some of my most boring and tedious duties at these places. The people are generally nice. One actually had me do all of her work for the next season, so…I guess that will be helpful for her. I have still learned a lot from these internships and appreciate the experiences they have offered me, but I can’t imagine how anyone who isn’t from NYC breaks into this industry. The only reason I’m still able to do these internships while I apply for jobs is because I’m living at home with my family.

          One of these internships pulled out some crazy rules that it’s supposedly perfectly legal to have an unpaid intern as long as the person only puts in a total of 500 hours. I have /no idea/ where the publisher got this idea. While being an unpaid intern frustrates me at times, I know that it has helped me immensely to become a better candidate for eventual employment.

          And…I am obviously not going to speak out against the places for not paying me, because then (and other potential interns who have already graduated) will lose valuable options. Yay, I’m a chicken.

  2. Rose*

    Well, yes, but somehow all these unpaid internships didn’t exist years ago, and now they’ve become all the rage, with the excuse of the economy being bad. Here’s why I think they are bad:

    1. I’ve seen junior positions (like asst. editor) and admin assistants replaced by “unpaid interns”. So I switch the argument back on you…if unpaid internships were illegal, how many paid positions would suddenly materialize again (and yes, this is very prevalent in New York, for instance)
    2. Unpaid interns have no protections. What if the company decides to withhold their recommendation, for instance. Or if the intern makes significant financial arrangements to take an internship that promises xyz experiences or connections and they’re stuck in a room making copies?
    3. There should be a mandatory “intern” wage that covers at least travel and lunch. Let’s face it, Billy with the wealthy parents can easily take several months off to do a prestigious internship but working class Sam can’t. This creates a nasty block for middle and lower class students to find work.
    4. Paid internships keep companies honest and are usually superior to unpaid. One of my friends went to UCincinnatti for Industrial Design and they require students to do internships, but they also require companies to pay their interns. The companies had well-structured, rigorous internships in place and he made great contacts and got great experience. My brother-in-law did a paid internship through his MBA program at Emerson that turned into a job because Emerson structures their internship program that way. I’m not saying paid=better is causative, but there does seem to be a correlative link between the two in my experience.

    Finally, I’m seriously calling out the “if they don’t like them, they don’t have to take them” argument. If you’re not working, sure, go ahead and volunteer. But that same argument could be used to argue everything from sexual harassment (“if they can’t take it, they can get another job”), etc. More and more, the internship is seen as 100% necessary to many careers, and both employees and interns need protection. Its a crappy situation otherwise.

    Just my two cents!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Some thoughts in response —

      1. It sounds like you’re talking about unpaid internships at for-profits, which are illegal. So I’m not at all defending those.

      2. Unpaid interns have pretty much the same protections as paid interns. (Paid interns, and paid full-time employees for that matter, are also at risk of a company changing their job description.)

      3. I agree that it’s much harder, if not impossible, for working class students to do unpaid internships … but it’s also true that they’re typically done as part of a college course load (it’s rare to do one outside of college) and some colleges subsidize them or otherwise help their students find ways to do them.

      4. I’ve actually typically given unpaid interns more interesting work than my paid ones, specifically BECAUSE it’s unpaid. If I’m paying you, I have no problem asking you to make copies for half the day. If I’m not paying you, I’m going to find out what you want out of the internship and really try to meet that. I’m not saying that’s always the case, but like everything in the work world, you can’t paint it all with the same brush.

      1. Kimberlee*

        Actually, my understanding is that unpaid internships at for-profit places aren’t illegal, there are just really strict guidelines for how they have to be done (which most don’t meet). The problem is that when the job market is as crappy as it is, the number of unpaid internships available goes up while the incentive for reporting the illegal ones goes down. If all unpaid internships did what they’re supposed to do, which is provide a structured learning environment similar to what a vo-tech college would offer, that would be great. But when you’ve been unemployed for 6 months and you finally get a “big break” fetching coffee and making copies for no money for a prestigious firm or a company in your perfect niche, how can we possibly expect that person to report that internship as illegal?

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yes, sorry, should have been clearer. I think the ones Rose is talking about are in the “illegal” category, but not ALL unpaid internship at for-profits are illegal.

          Their rule for for-profit companies is that the *net* benefit has to be to the unpaid intern, not the company. So the intern has to be getting *more* out of it than the company does. So, for instance, an internship that was very heavy on training might qualify.

  3. Karthik*

    And now I’m glad I work in an industry where both security clearances and interns are the norm. You don’t go through the cost of getting a clearance unless you really vet the intern, and the intern isn’t going through the hassle of getting a clearance unless they’re getting paid on the other end of it all.

  4. Anonymous*

    With great interns the organization can get something out of it (nonprofits naturally) but with adequate ones I would end up putting in so much time and effort that I found myself sounding more and more like my mother, “It would be so much faster if I just did it myself.” Interns, in my experience, have required enormous amounts of managing and re-doing of the work with them. The great ones stand out in my head to this day and I have bent over backwards to help them find work (or graduate school or start her own design business). But I wasn’t allowed to fire interns so often I would simply find myself leaving the mediocre and poor ones with no work to do because it wouldn’t get done or worse would require more work for me to fix than for me to simply do it in the first place.
    If you are going to do an internship treat it like a job and don’t think adequate is enough.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Exactly. Unpaid interns are typically inexperienced enough that most employers wouldn’t be hiring those students for paid work, because it would be faster to just hire someone who already knew what they were doing. So the choice isn’t really between paying and not paying; it’s between making it easier for students to get a certain kind of work experience (and the organization to get volunteer help) and not doing that. I’ve had some great unpaid interns, but I doubt I would have hired any of them if they’d been competing against the more experienced applicants who would have been in a paid candidate pool.

  5. Kathleen*

    I just wanted to jump in and say that I work in the non-profit world, and I started as an intern. I worked part-time and interned part-time while still in college, and the internship lead to a part-time job at the non-profit, which led to a full time position when I graduated. 4 years later, I’m still at the place, and I love my job. Without that internship, I never would have gotten my foot in the door, and without a doubt would not have the job and career that I love. So I am completely in favor of unpaid internships – the value benefit for me what completely work the time and money spent interning.

  6. Mike C.*

    By “getting it in writing”, do you mean a formally signed contract or would an official company handbook count? I ask because I’ve found that many things that were “in writing” in the company handbook were simply changed or edited out once I was hired. Things like 401(k) matching and scheduled reviews.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s difficult to ask for a formal contract when the company is made up of at-will employees; it would be unusual for them to agree to that. So I just mean get everything that’s been agreed to written down — even in an email is fine.

      Even then, they can still change the terms of employment on you; as you noted, stuff like 401k contributions can change without notice. So it’s important to note that this isn’t creating a written-in-stone contract. What’s it’s doing is creating something that will be very helpful to you in the case of *miscommunications*, such as the example I gave in the post about the person you negotiated with leaving the company and their replacement knowing nothing about what they’d agreed to. Being able to point to a written trail is very helpful. It’s not foolproof, but in the majority of cases, it’ll fix misunderstandings/miscommunications. (In the case of the OP, she would have been able to say, “We actually agreed to this as part of my accepting the position.” She can still say that without it in writing, but it’s much easier for the manager to reply, “I said I’d try to do that, but I wasn’t sure we could commit to it.” Of course, if it’s in writing, the manager can still renege, by saying “Unfortunately circumstances have changed on our end and it’s no longer feasible” … but in practice that happens much less when you have a clear statement of intent in writing.) So it’s really just about giving yourself maximum protection, but not creating something iron-clad.

  7. Jess*

    I did 3 unpaid internships in college- I went to school in DC and graduated in 09. EVERYONE did at least one internship at my school, and most did multiple internships. I now work as an admin running the internship program at my last internship!

    Internships CAN suck- but you know what, sometimes that’s good. I HATED being on the Hill- I never would have known that if I hadn’t interned.

    Internships also give skills that go beyond technical/work related skills- I’ve worked part-time and full-time jobs, but they were all childcare related or campus housing. I learned to update my resume, interview, dress for an office, make polite office chatter, transfer calls, make copies (yes, it IS an important skill), export contacts from Excel to Outlook (strangely enough a skill that has gotten me much praise) to send thank you notes, write memos, and write professionally When I went to apply for jobs, and start a full-time position, I KNEW all of that already- major plus!

    On a side note, I also think working for $ at various jobs also greatly helped- you learn that sometimes you have bad bosses but you need the money anyway….

  8. Charles*

    A couple of things jump out at me here:

    1. Only coming in 2 days a week was already not much; reducing that to 1 day per week is almost like not showing up at all. If, I as a manager, have a project for someone who only works one day a week, that means someone else who is there fulltime will finish in one week what that 1dayperweek person will take a month to do. And you want to be “paid” in addition to this? yea, I, as a manager, won’t “look too hard” for that $60/week in the budget for someone who is almost never there.

    2. “She managed to find $50 for a gift certificate to B&N to give me as a going away gift.” I hope that I am not reading this the wrong way, but the OP doesn’t sounds too grateful for this gift. Perhaps, it was leftover from a special event that the organization held previously to her joining. Or, perhaps, this $50 dollars came from the supervisor’s pocket directly! Would showing a little gratitude would have helped in this situation?

    3. Reading further: “I also feel that there’s something exploitative about employers not providing a basic stipend (travel and possibly lunch) even in an unpaid internship” Lunch? you want lunch paid for too? yep, a little gratitude would have helped. If nothing else, show a little gratitude because it is the right thing to do.

    P.S., Yes, it does seem that only “the rich” can afford to “work for free.” This means that many of us who were from working class backgrounds simply didn’t have the financial means to “pay to work” and, therefore, didn’t have internships as an option. Does this suck? yep, it sure does; but I wouldn’t want to deny everyone such an opportunity simply because it wasn’t an option for me. The I-cannot-have-it-therefore-nobody-can school of thought is just plain selfish.

    Life isn’t about being fair; life is about being/doing your best with what options you are given. One shouldn’t need an internship (or an advanced degree!) to learn that lesson.

  9. Anonymous*

    And here’s another comment on the lunch thing…

    SRSLY?! You’ll need to find lunch regardless of where you work and it boggles the mind that you feel it would be appropriate to be fed because you’re willing to work for free. Dear Sir (or Madam), I argue that if you are so fabulous at what you do, you would be taking on a paid internship or rather, a paid JOB since you’ve finished uhm, GRADUATE school.

    Perhaps I’m terse because I just came out of an interview with an ’11 graduate to told me that they have spent most of their lives struggling to “respect and value critical feedback” because usually they know what they’re doing and don’t need managing.

    1. Anonymous*

      I also have a master’s degree and I’m working in an unpaid internship because I can’t find a paid job. It is not a reflection on my ability but rather on the few job options that are available right now, especially in my city and field. It really isn’t fair to assume that the OP isn’t good at what he/she does simply because he/she went to grad school and took on an unpaid internship. When every entry level job out there seems to want 2+ years experience, sometimes we’re left with no choice but to work for free in order to get enough experience to get a paying job.

  10. Anonymous*

    Unpaid internships can provide great experience. In the library world, they are pretty common. However, I worry that if too many people are willing to work for free, then no one will bother with actually hiring people to do that work. Since the job market is so tight for librarians (and lots of other fields) and experience is so important, most people are willing to volunteer. But if the library has tons of volunteers with Master’s degrees, why would they hire employees to do that work, especially with all the budget cuts? It seems like a catch-22: you need to volunteer to get experience to get a job, but having too many volunteers may actually lead to less library jobs.

    1. Heather Backman*

      I actually just attended a session on volunteers at a library conference today and the answer, at least in New Hampshire, is that it is basically illegal to have a volunteer doing something that is critical to the operation of the library AND that makes up a substantial portion of a paid employee’s job description. So you could never (legally) have a volunteer basically doing an employee’s job (though a volunteer taking on more minor tasks that an employee might do but that are not a huge part of that employee’s job, like covering books, is fine).

      I’d benefited greatly from unpaid internships as a library school student and asked if they came under the same restrictions. The answer was that they don’t, because they are generally done with the cooperation of the graduate school and for school credit. So unpaid internships and volunteering are not necessarily the same thing. As a volunteer, someone with an MLS would generally not be allowed to do professional-level work that an MLS student could do as an intern.

  11. Anonymous*

    I did an unpaid internship while in college and the only thing I got out of it was college credit; no reimbursement for gas, lunch or even a small thank gift or card at the end. I did only come in for twice a week, which was reduced to once a week.

  12. Anonymous*

    If $15 a week was a significant sum perhaps they need to learn how to pack a lunch rather than buying one or being provided one. My guess is if they had offered $5 a day for lunch that would have been looked at as offensive.

    In regards to getting things in writing…I totally agree but for a different reason. When I took over the dept I currently manage, at least once a month something would come up and when I why are we doing that I was told “so and so” agreed to that years ago. When I asked for any documentation nothing could ever be provided. I’m not trying to take anything away from people but it would have made my life easier if I could have found proof that a previous manager had in fact agreed to something.

  13. Brittany*

    I took three unpaid internships while I was in college. All were in the media industry.

    The first allowed me to work remotely and gave me almost exclusive editorial control of a start-up, content-driven website. It was heaven, and led to a freelancing gig for the rest of my undergrad years. I saved the money from that to pay for my commuting costs for the other two.

    After my sophomore year, I worked at a regional mag about 20 minutes from my home. The staff was teeny and overworked, so I got a TON of real work to do, and lots of great clips. And I learned how to answer phones, which killed shy, quiet me for the first two weeks.

    After junior year, I interned in NYC for academic credit, and I was lucky to get an intern supervisor who was really big on teaching me as I worked. I hated leaving at the end of the summer.

    An unpaid internship CAN be done right so that it really benefits the intern. Twice in my career, I’ve had to supervise unpaid interns. I wish I could offer them money, but we don’t have the budget for it. Instead, I bend over backward to teach them everything I can. I’m also really flexible when it comes to scheduling and working with their interests.

    1. jen*

      Definitely the way to get the most out of internships (or, really any entry level position) is to work somewhere that is understaffed. You end up being responsible for things you wouldn’t imagine.

      …or maybe that’s just for people (like Brittany and me) who work in the media.

  14. "Reader"*

    As the writer of this question, I wanted to respond with some more details of what I was asking.

    I’m fairly certain that AAM is correct in saying that the reason why they rescinded my compensation is because they didn’t want to set precedent. That’s what got me thinking- Hey, maybe they *should* be providing travel for interns, is that such terrible precedent?! (Maybe I did get greedy when I suggested another 5 bucks for lunch…)

    For the sake of my pride, I’ll just mention that I described my work as perfectly adequate because it consisted largely of stuffing and addressing envelopes. In order to be fantastic at that job I would have to be manufactured by Pitney Bowes. I would have been perfectly happy to have been “demoted” from intern to volunteer, which would not have affected the amount of attention paid to me at all. The fact that the principle of not-paying me was more important than allowing me to make a small contribution/learn something tipped me off to the fact that something might be amiss.

    Thanks to AAM for answering my letter and to all the interesting comments. No thanks to those who portrayed me as lazy, unintelligent, and entitled when I was really just over-educated and poor!

  15. Rose*

    Dear LW,

    I am also pretty shocked that people said that you were ungrateful and entitled because you wanted lunch money to essentially work for free. And let’s not forget that an internship is basically someone willing to work for free. Yes, you may not hire that inexperienced person otherwise and they hopefully are getting great experience, but the companies also benefit and the internee may be giving up a paid (but not prestigious) position to work there.

    I think the person who wrote that “life isn’t fair, don’t ruin it for others” comment totally missed the point. It used to be that you started at a PAID entry-level position and you worked your way up. But now that working-your-way-up path is becoming less available as an option, and the spend-your-own-money-to-intern-with-us option is the ONLY way to get into certain jobs. If it was one option among many, I’d be right alongside you saying, “hey, there’s other options don’t spoil it for those people”. But if its becoming the only option, you have to worry about the effects on America. A lot of countries like France and Japan have a system where rich families send their students to elite schools and they become the next leaders. It can have a crippling effect on innovation and entrepreneurship when you start to have only one path to “success” and that path depends on how much money you have.

  16. Rachel*

    I agree with AAM: the reader was right to leave the internship when the terms of her internship changed.

    The non-profit that I work for offers paid internships or limited travel stipends for grant-funded internships or “less desirable positions” (ie street level outreach). The more desirable positions (office based, in more popular departments like Education), are always unpaid. I manage social media interns (unpaid) and go out of my way to accommodate them, ie letting them work 1 day per week instead of 2 to save commuting costs, so that they can balance “interesting” work experience with their income-generating work like baby sitting.

  17. Angela*

    A comment on the “intern becoming the ONLY way to a career”. This trend is worrying me too. Me and my friend are looking for job, and we are finding that even the unpaid intern and volunteer position have fierce competition.

    ps. I’m seeing a LOT of unpaid intern for profit companies.

  18. Ella*

    Two quick questions I’m trying to wrap my head around.

    (1) As an unpaid intern outside of the 40-hour mandatory training, am I MANDATED to attend offsite trainings/conferences ? If so, am I entitled to mileage and travel time?
    (2) Working an unpaid 8-hour day with an hour lunch, is it 8 hours minus one-hour for lunch or 9 hours minus the one-hour lunch?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      1. Depends on your employer’s policies. (Well, for mileage. Travel time wouldn’t apply since your rate of pay for time is zero.)

      2. Also depends on your employer’s policies. Just ask!

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