The Legal Truth Behind Your Unpaid Internship

This blog is written by Lauren, our campus ambassador from Binghamton University.

Congratulations! You’ve finally earned the internship of your dreams. After hours of résumé and cover letter writing and interviews, you’ve finally secured the position and are ready to begin. You are kind of bummed that the position is unpaid, but you figure that it is the experience that counts. Plus, all your friends are doing unpaid internships, so there must be nothing wrong with this practice…right? Actually, the answer may not be as clear-cut as it seems.

In this hard market economy, it is easy to think that an unpaid experience is better than no experience whatsoever. However, many states across the country have been cracking down on internship programs across the board. In the simplest terms, for an unpaid internship to be legal, an intern must not do any work that is of actual benefit to the company. In a broader sense, a company must follow the six criteria outlined by the United States Labor Department. These are:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  1. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  1. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  1. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  1. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  1. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

In many instances, you may be offered academic credit for your unpaid internship. However, if your internship does not have a significant educational component, this is just a way for the company to circumvent the laws. This directly applies if a majority of your internship involves menial tasks such as sweeping bathrooms. If this is true for your internship, the company may be violating federal minimum-wage laws!
Don’t get me wrong, I strongly believe an unpaid internship can be the stepping stone one needs towards launching the career he or she has always wanted. I’ve had them in the past and hopefully the opportunity for another one will present itself in the future. Yet, I also believe that is extremely important to weigh the pros and cons of the position you are about to take. If you personally believe that this experience will be worthwhile, then go for it and I wish you the best of luck. However, making sure that the unpaid component does not hinder you financially nor that it translates into free labor for the company you are working for is an equally important consideration in the internship process.