Are internships educational or just free labor?

An unpaid internship may be worth it if

An unpaid internship may be worth it if you receive individualized instruction in your chosen field. (Credit: istock)

Ellis Henican

Ellis Henican

Henican is a columnist for Newsday. He also is a

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Want to be my slave? How 'bout my intern?

Sorry, I can't pay you.

Unpaid employment, by whatever name, has become the default way to launch a 21st century career. Just ask those dopey guys in "The Internship." College students -- and some people the age of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn -- volunteer their labor at companies, government offices and nonprofit groups for the chance to make contacts, gain experience and maybe earn a course credit or two.

So what does federal labor law think about that? Don't we have a minimum wage in this country, not to mention a 13th Amendment? Are these interns soaking up jobs that paid adults should fill, especially in so-called glamour fields such as fashion and media?

Those kinds of questions, long unasked, are suddenly producing a crashing wave of lawsuits. TV host Charlie Rose just paid $110,000 to settle a claim from his former interns. Last month, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled that former production interns on the film "Black Swan" were, in fact, employees of Fox Searchlight Pictures and shouldn't have to work for free. Suits against Gawker, Atlantic Records and W Magazine are on the docket next.

It's undeniable that internships can provide genuine benefits to those who take them, including a first crack at the real jobs. But it's also true that these unpaid gigs often fail to meet the government's six-point test for legitimate educational work experiences. And the poorer kids who need to work for pay often are left in the cold.

An internship's legit, according to the letter of the law, only if it "does not displace regular employees" and the employer "derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern."

Now Charlie Rose just may have to hire someone to run his copy machine.

HEY, INTERN

1. "Fetch me a coffee, will ya?"

2. "Here's my dry-cleaning ticket."

3. "We won't pay you, but just imagine the contacts you'll make."

4. "Did I mention 'weekend work'?"

5. "Stand over here and look cute."

ASKED AND UNANSWERED: What was Mike Bloomberg thinking as he watched Joey Chestnut consume 69 hot dogs at the Nathan's Famous Gross-Out Contest on Coney Island? Was the health-conscious mayor itching to ask: "Hey Joey, you wanna wash that down with a 48-ounce Big Gulp?" . . . Will Lou Reed walk on the mild side now that he's out of Southampton Hospital? The rocker was in for dehydration, two months after his liver transplant . . . Deer crossing? Otter crossing? Just be careful, OK, when you drive to Northport's Crab Meadow Beach . . . Who will save the Inisfada, the beloved Jesuit retreat house in North Hills? Gentlemen, please contemplate that $35-million question in reverent silence.

THE NEWS IN SONG: I know it don't thrill you: "The Working Week" by Elvis Costello, tinyurl.com/wrkwk

LONG ISLANDERS OF THE WEEK: LIFE-JACKET LOANERS

Now, this is just a good idea. By this weekend, 42 life-jacket loaner stands will have been installed at marinas, bait shops and boat launches along the South Fork. No fee, no forms to fill out, total honor system. Just take as many as need. Return them at the end of the boating day. Thanks to Sea Tow Services International and a $20,000 grant from LI beer distributor Clare Rose and brewer Anheuser-Busch. Now the U.S. Coast Guard's ponied up another $150,000 to spread the idea around. It was last July 4 that three children died when a wave swamped a family boat on Oyster Bay. Only three of 27 on board were wearing life jackets.

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