October 05, 2011

When Is An Unpaid Internship Illegal?

With the economy in bad shape and likely to stay that way for a while, internships have become even more of a necessity to gain experience and get your foot in the door.  Unfortunately, some employers have used the desperation of go-getters like yourselves solely as a way to get free or cheap labor.  I am in no way trying to start an unpaid intern revolt or inspire any lawsuits (remember, I am not a lawyer), but I do think that it is important to know your rights, especially when there is a lot of misinformation out there.

There are two important misunderstandings I want to clear up right away.  The first is that unpaid internships are not illegal. There are certain circumstances when a for-profit company is able to have unpaid interns, so don't assume that all unpaid internships are automatically the equivalent of slave labor. The second is that earning school credit does not alone make an internship legal.  School credit is great, but it is not the magic ingredient that turns a questionable internship into a legal one.

So what turns an unpaid internship into a legal, mutually beneficial opportunity?

The US Department of Labor has identified six factors to determine the legality of an unpaid internship:

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;
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
4. 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;
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

There are a few clues here and there as to what these factors actually mean, but let's put aside the factors for a moment.  There is a difference between cleaning toilets every day and occasionally going on a coffee run for the office.  Interns often get stuck with the jobs that no one else wants to do or has the time for.  This is just a fact of life, and while you certainly should not be replacing a member of the janitorial staff, part of being a good intern is about pitching in and helping out wherever you can.  The occasional request that you take care of something that has little or no educational value for you is not a reason to turn to litigation.  Litigation is time-consuming, expensive, and can have long-lasting consequences for you and your career.

What is most important is that your internship expose you to how things work in your area of the music industry and teach you skills that you will need to know to land a paid job in the future, which, on the whole, will ultimately benefit you more than those lost wages.  If that describes your internship, the more likely it is to satisfy the US Department of Labor factors and the less likely quitting (or in the extreme, suing) is to be worth it.

- Lauren
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