Am I really an intern or just an employee who isn't getting paid?

Unpaid internships are legal only if they meet this six-part test.

Question

I recently graduated from college. Because I couldn't find a paid position in my field (fashion design), I took an unpaid internship. I was promised plenty of hands-on experience and opportunities, but the only things I've had my hands on are the copy machine, my employer's dogs and kids, and groceries. I am doing almost nothing related to fashion, and instead am basically serving as a gofer and household help to a couple of the designers. Is this legal?

Answer

The answer is probably not. Calling a job an "internship" doesn't relieve an employer of the obligation to pay for your time. An employer that wants to pay less than the minimum wage (or nothing at all) to an intern must meet a seven-factor test, intended to ensure that the position really is a learning experience. If a job doesn't meet this test, the person holding it is entitled to be paid.

The Department of Labor looks at the factors listed below to decide who is the primary beneficiary of the internship:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

The Department of Labor weighs all of the above factors in deciding whether an unpaid internship is legal. No one factor is determinative. If the DOL decides that the employer is the primary beneficiary, the unpaid internship is illegal, and the worker is entitled to minimum wage and all of the other rights and benefits provided to employees under the law.

As you've probably noticed, your "internship" meets few of the requirements on this list. You are receiving no training, supervision, or educational benefit from your work. Not only are you doing entry-level office work, but you are also being pushed into service as a babysitter, dog walker, and delivery person for your employers. If you were attending meetings with clients, going along on shopping excursions for fabric and materials, observing the design process, learning how to fit models, and otherwise learning your trade, your employer could ask you to fetch the occasional cup of coffee or copy marketing materials without jeopardizing your internship. However, your employer is providing no learning experiences, and instead is requiring you to do work it would otherwise have to pay for. This is likely illegal.

Talk to a Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
NEED PROFESSIONAL HELP ?

Talk to an Employment Rights attorney.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you