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Beware When Hiring Unpaid Interns

by Jason Tremblay on July 12th, 2010
Interns

The current economic situation in this country has led to an increase in the use of unpaid internships by companies, especially unpaid internships for young people who have been hit particularly hard by unemployment.  However, employers need to be extra careful in this regard since the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) recently announced that it is cracking down on what it claims is the excessive and improper use of unpaid interns by companies for free labor.  Specifically, the DOL recently proclaimed that “[i]f you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law.”

For an unpaid internship to be lawful under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), the intern must be classified as a “trainee” rather than an employee.  The DOL has developed the below six factors to evaluate whether a worker is a trainee or an employee for purposes of the FLSA:

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction;
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainees;
  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and
  6. The employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

If all the above factors are satisfied, the worker will be deemed a “trainee,” not an employee, and the worker can lawfully be unpaid under the FLSA.  Put another way, unless all the above factors are met, the worker will be classified as an employee entitled to, among other things, minimum wage and overtime.  A misclassification of a worker as a “trainee” could also obligate the company to pay workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance benefits, as well as subject the company to federal and state discrimination laws, tax liability, fines and significant legal bills.

In light of the foregoing, employers must carefully tailor any existing or future unpaid internship programs to make sure that they comply with the above factors in order to avoid liability.  Should you have any questions about this issue, please contact E. Jason Tremblay at Arnstein & Lehr LLP.

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