Alexander Hayes of Boston doesn't earn any money at his job editing hours of video shot at weddings and bar mitzvahs. Nonetheless, he says, he values the opportunity to pad his resume before he graduates from Emerson College.
"The whole not getting paid thing is totally a bummer," says Hayes, 21, who added that paid editing jobs aren't available for college students. "But I really do think the experience is worth it."
A recent ruling by a US district judge in New York took a far less benevolent view of unpaid internships. It was the first to reinforce a decades-old federal law that says interns deserve a paycheck when they benefit a company and do the work of a regular employee.
Experts say the decision, which sanctioned a class-action suit against Fox Searchlight Pictures, has no legal jurisdiction in Massachusetts. It did, however, spark a new — and some say long overdue — debate over an old employment practice that straddles the line of educational work experience and indentured servitude.
"It's been a sleeping giant for a long time," says David Yamada, a professor of law at Suffolk University. "If someone is doing bona fide work, it doesn't matter what you call them, you are required to pay the minimum wage."
Data gathered by the National Association of Colleges and Employers suggests a substantial portion of college students have worked for free. A survey of more than 9,000 graduating seniors found that 63.2 percent of them had completed an internship or co-op. Within that group, 47.8 were unpaid.
No one who works without a paycheck needs to be reminded about the downside of unpaid internships. But many interns, who speak cautiously about the companies that benefit from their uncompensated labor, remain positive about opportunities to gain experience they might not otherwise get.
Stephen Nardone, 21, a Franklin Pierce University student, has two unpaid internships this summer. The Winchester native works two days a week at the Warren Group, a Boston company that publishes real estate information and research on New England. Later this month he'll begin another part-time gig with TRP Sports and Entertainment Marketing of Charlestown.
"I'm grateful for it," Nardone says. "I've always just been a college student worried about going into the workforce. This is making me feel confident in my ability to get a real job."
But other interns place a greater emphasis on a paycheck. Lindsay Boegel, a University of Delaware graduate, applied exclusively for paid internships because she had bills to pay.
"I really just want to be able to support myself as soon as possible and not have to rely on my parents," she says.
The Sudbury native landed a paid internship in public relations with PAN Communications of Boston. Now she pays $900 a month in rent for an apartment in South Boston. She's also paying back her student loans.
Boegel said her paycheck also makes her feel more confident in her job. "I'm not sure at an unpaid internship if the company is as invested in you," she said. "The fact that I am being paid makes me feel like I'm of value to the company."
Still, unpaid internships are widely accepted by firms and students. Experts predict the ruling will change that, leading to more cases against for-profit employers and widespread reevaluations of unpaid internships programs. "It's going to make people sit up," said Rosanna Sattler, an employment attorney with Posternak Blankstein & Lund LLP. "It's going to make people focus on the training aspect because you're not supposed to bring them in and just hope they have a good internship program."
Many unpaid interns acknowledge that if firms were required to pay them, fewer internships might exist and competition would likely stiffen.
Nardone says he hopes working unpaid will impress future employers because it shows dedication. But, as Yamada points out, it also suggests privilege.
The majority of students who accept unpaid internships can only do so on their parents' dime. This creates both a class issue, where more students from affluent families get a foot in the door, and a situation where employers limit their applicant pool, Yamada says.
"I'm very fortunate to pretty much live on the 'Bank of Mom' at this point," says Hayes, the Emerson senior. "My mom believes this is an investment in my future to keep me from sleeping on her couch in five years."
Taryn Luna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @tarynluna.