If you’ve been around this blog a while, you’ve heard me rail against unpaid internships that are often illegal. I’ve encouraged anyone who has been through such an internship to fight for their rights — including back wages. I’ve also argued that the “intern” title is part of the problem, and thankfully, it’s changing to “Associate” for California MFTs and PCCs in 2018. But interns aren’t alone in troubling and potentially exploitive work settings.
Around Los Angeles, it is increasingly common for agencies to charge significant fees to trainees — students in graduate school, doing the clinical hours they need to graduate — for the privilege of working for free.
I’m presenting on this issue to the California licensing board for master’s level professions today in Anaheim. [Edited 5/18/17 to add: A recording of my presentation can be viewed here. I’ve also embedded the video below. The full presentation and discussion runs about 54 minutes.]
How much will volunteering cost you?
Below is a list of the sites I’ve been able to reasonably verify are charging their trainees. Interestingly, all of them are in or around Los Angeles. While I’m optimistic that this is largely a local problem, it’s still a problem.
Some of the agencies that charge volunteer trainees are transparent about it, posting that information on their web sites. Others I have verified through multiple independent accounts or other documentation. If you know of others — and especially if you can provide *evidence* of their trainee fees, either through their web site, their contract, an email from someone at the agency, or anything else — please email me at email@example.com. And of course, if you are affiliated with any of these sites and believe the information here is incorrect, please email me with evidence of that.
Family Service Agency (Burbank) – $1,200/yr
Center for Individual and Family Counseling – $1,200/yr
Airport Marina Counseling – $1,000 one-time up front
Open Paths – $900/yr, waived if trainee meets client threshold
Maple Center – $900/yr
Southern California Counseling Center – $840/yr
Counseling West – $750 one-time up front
Valley Community Health Care – $720/yr
A lot of sites also charge specific fees for individual supervision. The ones listed here who charge for individual supervision do so on top of the basic charges listed above. This is particularly concerning for students attending COAMFTE-accredited programs, as these programs typically require that students receive individual supervision at their practicum sites.
Where the money goes
I’ve talked with people who have worked for some of the agencies on that list. In many cases they report that the fees charged to trainees actually do go to training, and that they were happy to pay the fees considering what they got in return. The agency may bring in guest speakers, provide useful certifications, or organize training activities with the funds trainees pay. In other cases the usage is less clear, with some agencies appearing to provide little more than the bare minimum supervision required by law.
Is it legal?
Probably. CAMFT addressed the question in a 2013 article, concluding that “trainees who are volunteers […] can lawfully be charged for supervision and other training.” However, it still may leave supervisors vulnerable to ethics complaints, if — and it’s a big “if” — the fees are determined to be exploitive in nature. The ACA, AAMFT, and NASW codes of ethics all contain language that prohibits exploitation in professional relationships.
Why Los Angeles
I’ve also talked with folks involved in therapist training nationally. They tell me that this is almost exclusively a Los Angeles problem. While LA agencies may say that they need these fees to keep their doors open and their training programs running, it seems that nearly every other training facility for therapists around the country has found a way to stay afloat with other funds. It’s possible, I suppose, that there are unique elements of providing therapist training in Los Angeles that require these fees. But so far, I have yet to hear any such unique local issue.
It is possible that this issue will improve simply by shining a light on it. As I was discussing this with folks from Southern California Counseling Center (one of the agencies listed above), they noted that their board is actively looking at options for doing away with the fees. The fees represent just a sliver of their annual operating budget, and they understand that charging trainees creates another barrier to entry for the profession. My thanks to SCCC for their willingness to engage in an open discussion of a sensitive issue, and to acknowledge the impact of their fees on trainees.
It is also possible that the BBS will choose to intervene more forcefully to prevent the problem from spreading. Of course, they do not have jurisdiction over agencies. So they have two choices:
- Create a rule that impacts trainees, such as prohibiting trainees from paying fees. This would be problematic for a variety of reasons, including that it would be trainees getting punished for violations.
- Create a rule that impacts supervisors. This seems a much wiser path. Prohibiting supervisors from engaging in contracts with trainees that require the trainees to pay fees to the site or supervisor is one option. Creating a rule that defines engaging in exploitation of interns or trainees as unprofessional conduct is another. That would still require a judge to determine that trainee fees equate to exploitation, which is not guaranteed. But it could create (the good kind of) a chilling effect, where supervisors at least think twice before contracting to be part of a supervision arrangement that trainees are paying for.
Update, May 18 2017: I’m pleased to report that the presentation went well, with board members asking good and appropriate questions and avoiding demonizing the agencies involved. They have asked staff to work with me to gather some additional data and come back in November with specific policy recommendations for them to vote on. Any rule changes adopted by the board would need to go through either the legislative or regulatory process, which means the earliest any changes would likely come into effect is 2019. But we’ve started the ball rolling, and I’m happy with the result. Feel free to post in the comments or email me directly (ben at bencaldwell dot com) if you would like to share your experience as I work with the board on this issue.