When Michelle Kamigaki-Baron was an undergraduate student in California, she felt pressured into working as an unpaid intern to gain experience that could help her compete for jobs in the medical field. 

But it came at a price.

Her mother, who lives in Hawaii, struggled financially and needed her support, so the 22-year-old had to quit her unpaid internship to work at the mall. She said she felt left behind as her friends, who came from financially stable backgrounds, took on unpaid internships. 

“It’s so difficult because, no matter what, there is no balance when you come from a working-class family and you’re trying to make it into competitive fields,” Kamigaki-Baron said.

Senator Karl Rhoads during recreational marijuana hearing.
Sen. Karl Rhoads introduced a bill that would prohibit unpaid internships except for certain educational purposes in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Valuable Experience

For many young professionals, internships are a gateway to get experience in their chosen career field. But some Hawaii students have raised concerns that working for free is unethical and benefits those with more financial backing.

At the federal level, it’s not illegal to offer unpaid internships, but the Department of Labor updated its guidelines in 2018 to include several criteria that employers should offer in lieu of money to ensure the intern is the “primary beneficiary” and not just providing free labor.

State Sen. Karl Rhoads, who chairs the state Senate Judiciary Committee, wants to tighten the rules in Hawaii with a proposed measure that would create clear guidelines for unpaid internships under the state wage and hour law.

It would add a section to the Hawaii Revised Statutes barring unpaid internships except for specific educational purposes in exchange for academic credit or training.

“What we’re trying to avoid is slavery situations where you’re working for free,” said Rhoads, who authored Senate Bill 988. “For educational purposes, I think internships are great.”

On Wednesday, the Senate approved the bill and now it goes to the House for further consideration.

‘Time Is Money’

Universities would largely be exempt due to their natural education purposes. Private companies also would be able to offer unpaid internships to students if they meet the criteria described in the bill.

For example, a student enrolled at least part time in school could be trained under supervision as long as the training is similar to an educational program, the student doesn’t receive employee benefits and the training is for the benefit of the student intern.

One situation the bill aims to avoid is having students work at the same pace as an employee would. Those fears were underscored in 2017 when the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations reported that some barber and beauty shops in Hawaii may have been using unpaid apprentices performing the same duties and working the same hours as paid employees.

Student objections to working for free, even if it’s for class credit, have grown with increased awareness about the potential inequities. 

Bernadette Garrett said her course work at the University of Hawaii Manoa’s School of Social Work and Public Health requires her to work 16 hours a week in order for her to graduate with her master’s degree in social work. In total the program requires at least 900 hours of field work within four semesters.

Bernadette Garrett is currently juggling working two jobs and her practicum.
Bernadette Garrett is currently juggling two jobs and her course work at University of Hawaii. Courtesy: Bernadette Garrett

She gets academic credit but also has to juggle two jobs to help her family with rent and other bills. And she faces the dilemma of which job to prioritize. 

“It’s just been a matter of crunching the hours,” Garrett said. “Do I put more hours and effort into something that will help me get a good job, or do I do something for myself now, which is paying my bills?”

Though many students are pushing for unpaid work to be banned, other students like Scott Gifford have benefited from unpaid internships.

“Personally I think an internship in general is way more valuable than all four years of college as far as the actual skills that you learn,” the recent Hawaii Pacific University graduate said. “The degree definitely looks better on your resume, but the internship prepared me so much more than any class I ever had all four years.”

Scott Gifford said he has benefited from unpaid internships and currently works at the Hawaii Capitol.
Scott Gifford said he has benefited from unpaid internships and currently works at the Hawaii Capitol. Cassie Ordonio/Civil Beat/2022

Gifford said his internship at the Hawaii Capitol helped him get a job there. 

He said he was able to juggle an unpaid internship while going to school full time and working two jobs.

However, he acknowledged other students might have more responsibilities on top of school that discourage them from taking unpaid internships.

“I do understand some of the concerns about unpaid internships and how that perpetuates systems of inequality as far as class privilege,” Gifford said. “Some people genuinely cannot afford it because their time is money. They may have to work a full-time job to support their family on top of school. So I can see how that can be inequitable.”

The state DLIR testified in support of SB 988 and said the bill distinguishes the difference between an intern and employee, although it’s unclear how many Hawaii students work as unpaid interns.

A 2021 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that more than 40% of college interns in the U.S. were unpaid. 

Senator Brian Schatz.
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz pushed legislation that pays interns working at the U.S. Senate. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

NACE surveyed more than 15,300 students who were graduating with bachelor’s degrees between February and May 2021. 

Another 2021 survey by NACE, which reviewed 267 companies, found that the average hourly wage for interns was $20.76. The minimum wage in Hawaii is $10.10.  

The issue also extends to the federal government, which for years did not have to pay interns. But in 2018 Congress allocated $5 million for U.S. Senate offices to pay their interns.

For Hawaii, it depends. Some interns are paid through the University of Hawaii and some volunteer. 

Interns may receive hourly wages or stipends depending on each U.S. Senate office, according to U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.

Schatz, who pushed the bill forward, said unpaid internships are “an opportunity only for the well off.”

“If we don’t provide some sort of compensation, that becomes a question of fairness and justice, but it also affects the work product,” Schatz said. “We need people in our office at all levels, who come from all walks of life. And so in order to get that kind of diversity in terms of lived experience, you have to allow people to pay their rent if they’re going to work for a Senate office.”

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