It was 2009, I was just graduating college with a degree in hospitality, and I was desperate to find a job so I could stay in the U.S. and do my OPT. What I found instead was an unpaid internship that exploited my skills and my good will and, along with it, a newfound understanding of how to protect my rights as an employee.

Not that it started out that way.

A few months after graduating from college with a degree in hospitality, I was offered an internship at one of the most prestigious hotels in New York City. Although it was an unpaid internship, I was delighted to be part of the team and was willing to work hard.

The evolution of my internship

I had applied to work in sales and marketing, but was initially placed in the housekeeping department.  For the first three months of the internship, I was mostly assigned to manual labor such as vacuuming, wiping mirrors, scrubbing floors, or carrying boxes.

After months of this, however, I was ready for responsibilities that would do more to train me for my intended career path. I decided to talk with the assistant director of the housekeeping department about opportunities to learn more about his role and his day-to-day job routine, and he agreed to train me personally for the next four months. It was a tremendous opportunity for me to finally absorb how the hospitality industry works and to get hands-on experience in running a successful department.

I got another good opportunity when my request to be transferred into the sales and marketing department, my original first-choice department, was approved. I finally got to work in my desired field.

But after only a few months, Human Resources reassigned me to work temporarily as a bellboy. The HR director promised it would not be for more than a week and that I was only there to give a helping hand, but I ended up working as a bellboy for over a month.

I was practically working as a full-time employee, but without any pay.

The law and unpaid interns

The U.S. Department of Labor sets out six criteria to determine when (under the Fair Labor Standards Act) an intern or trainee may work for free for a for-profit company.  In particular, the intern must receive a benefit from the position, including training and education, and the intern must not fill a position that would normally require a regular employee [see the full list]. If these six criteria are not met, an intern must be paid for their labor.

Universities often place restrictions on what types of unpaid internships may be listed in their career search databases, and some states have attempted to crack down on unpaid internships, but by and large it is an intern?s responsibility to look out for their interests when they take a position.

I could have chosen to file a grievance with the Department of Labor, which might have resulted in the hotel being investigated and charged a fine.  Or I could have even filed a lawsuit, which some interns at major media companies have done to recover unpaid wages.

The lesson I learned

What I eventually did was give in my one-week notice when the HR director assigned me to keep working as a bellboy until they could find someone to replace me. With no certainty to how much longer they were going to take to find a full-time employee, I could not bear it anymore and decided to leave the hotel.

Looking back, I did not have a completely wasted internship.  The time I spent working with the head of hospitality and in the sales department were valuable experiences.  But I also didn?t know enough to realize that they were doing something wrong by using me to do housekeeping and bellboy work.

It was a valuable lesson for the future. If I were to encounter a similar situation again, I would definitely speak up and confront higher management. It's my obligation to protect my rights as an employee and my needs as a trainee.