States With the Most Unpaid Interns

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An internship is a period of work experience offered by an employer or organization for a limited period of time. Internships are typically undertaken by students and recent graduates looking to gain relevant skills and experience in a particular field. According to career-search website Zippa, there are 1.36 million people working in internships across America in more than 100 different industries. There are paid internships in all states, but the percentage of unpaid internships varies. (In terms of regular employment, these are America’s highest-paying companies.)

The concept of an unpaid intern is a controversial issue. The Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to pay employees; the issue is whether interns are employees or not. FLSA guidelines list seven criteria to make the distinction. 

According to the FLSA website, these guidelines are designed to “examine the ‘economic reality’ of the intern-employer relationship to determine which party is the ‘primary beneficiary’ of the relationship” In other words, to be legal, unpaid internships have to benefit the intern through gained education and experience; if the primary beneficiary is the employer, who hires an intern with the expectation of getting free labor, then the internship must be paid.

To compile a list of the states with the most unpaid interns, 24/7 Tempo reviewed a recent report by CashNetUSA, an online lender, which analyzed internship salary data from more than 100 industries across all 50 states. To calculate the percentage of unpaid internships in each state, CashNetUSA consulted Chegg Internships to determine the number of disclosed paid, unpaid, and co-op listings, then divided the number of unpaid listings by the sum of the total listings. (Co-op listings are those that grant school credit.) Internship data is as of August 2022. 

Average hourly pay for paid internships in each state was sourced from the career-search website Zippia. Internships that were fully remote and for which the pay conditions were not specified were excluded. Data on household income, median gross rent, and bachelor’s degree attainment came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey. 

States with low pay, low rent, and low household income offer fewer unpaid internships. States with the most unpaid internships usually have higher rent, hourly pay, and bachelor’s degree attainment. (These are the best-paying jobs you can get without a college degree.)

The Midwestern and Plains states offer the fewest number of unpaid internships, with the percentage in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, and Minnesota being 5% or less.

Interns in Washington, California, and Connecticut all earn average hourly pay of $20 or more, but the percentage of unpaid internships at all three is 11.9% or higher. More than one-third of interns in Delaware are unpaid, the highest of any state.

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