Unpaid Internships – Opportunity or Liability?

Unpaid internships have long been viewed by students, recent graduates and industry newcomers as a chance to gain experience that might help them select or launch a career, and to some, a chance to eventually land a paying job.  Employers can capitalize on this to teach their trade or profession and find new talent; but, they should not use interns just to cut labor costs.

The United States Department of Labor and many states use six criteria to determine whether internships in for-profit company operations can lawfully be unpaid: 1) the internship must be similar to training given in an educational institution; 2) regular paid workers are not displaced; 3) the intern works under close observation; 4) the employer derives no immediate advantage from intern activities; 5) there is no guaranty of employment upon internship completion; and 6) it is clear up front that there is no expectation of payment.  The overarching theme is that unpaid internships must be educational and predominantly for the benefit of the intern, not the employer.

Some employers have no idea the criteria exist and unwittingly expose themselves to expensive single-plaintiff, class action and regulator’s claims to reclassify interns as employees and to recover unpaid minimum wages, overtime pay, interest, multiple penalties and attorneys fees.  [For more on this see our post on Unpaid Interns Deemed Employees Under the FLSA].  Add to that, there are potential employer and decision maker risks for failure to withhold income and employment taxes.

“Warning bell” examples of internship programs that may be subject to reclassification include, use of unpaid internships to simply minimize labor costs or merely as an extended job interview to see if interns can make the cut later for a paid job; no real, supervised education and training, beyond what the intern might happen to observe; and a predominance of work assigned to interns that paid employees would normally do to generate or support the business.  Likewise, interns whose work is primarily running errands, answering phones, filing, organizing documents, data entry, scanning or coping images, or cleaning – even though they arguably have good exposure to work going on around them – tend to look like they are merely doing what paid support staff employees ought to be doing.

By contrast, if the intern is closely supervised and taught learning objectives that can be applied to multiple different employers, with occasional support staff type work incidental to the learning, with no guaranty of employment, and a writing that specifies a limited duration of an internship without pay, odds are better that intern can lawfully be unpaid.  As a practical matter, if a school or college will give the intern course credit, the odds of legal compliance increase.

A safe path to avoid classification risks is to pay interns at least minimum wage and for any overtime worked, afford meal and rest breaks, and manage their work assignments to reduce overtime needed.   Depending on employer policies and applicable laws, an intern who is part-time or a short-term temporary employee may not be eligible for certain employee benefits.

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