There was a good article in yesterday’s New York Times about an issue I’m surprised has taken this long to be investigated: the possible illegality of unpaid internships. Apparently some people are finally getting concerned that unpaid internships at for-profit companies constitute free labor, and are therefore a violation of minimum-wage laws.
As it turns out, the Department of Labor has laid out six criteria for determining whether an internship can be legally be unpaid. The internship must:
1. Give training similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic
educational instruction, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the
2. Be for the benefit of the intern.
3. Not replace regular employees with interns.
4. Give the employer no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees/interns (and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded)
5. Not guarantee the interns a job at the end
6. Feature a mutual understanding by employer/intern that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.
If all of these elements are true, the intern is not considered to be in an “employment relationship” with the employer, and need not be compensated. As you will notice, though, the standards are fairly strict, especially the “no immediate advantage” section. Nearly all internships carry some advantage for the employer, or else they wouldn’t be offered. The section is present because the guidelines were devised with vocational training rather than internships in mind, even though they apply to both (I have replaced the word “trainee” with “intern” in my use of the guidelines, to make it more applicable here).
The bottom line is that generally, unpaid internships by for-profit employers tend to be illegal. If you have accepted one for the summer, or are considering accepting one, know that your employer will be in violation of federal wage laws if you are not compensated for your time. You can file a wage complaint with the Massachusetts State Attorney General’s office here, or contact the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage & Hour division here or at 1-866-4US-WAGE. And if you know that a for-profit employer (do keep in mind that these regulations only apply to for-profit companies, as non-profits can be volunteered at) is offering unpaid internships through Brandeis, it might be a good idea to talk to someone at Hiatt.
The exploitation of students desperate for work by corporations is not only reprehensible, but illegal. I’m glad state regulators are on the case, but we need to assist their work by finding these activities where they exist.