Unpaid Interns: Do You Have an Unpaid Wage Claim?

Find out if you should be getting paid for your internship.

If you’re working as an intern, you’re not alone. Many college students and recent graduates take unpaid internships to learn new skills, enter a new profession, or simply get a foot in the door at the company or in the industry where they hope to work.

But simply calling work an “internship” doesn’t relieve your employer of the legal obligation to pay you for your time. While public employers, nonprofits, and other charitable organizations are permitted to have unpaid internships, strict rules apply to private, for-profit companies. The general rule is that workers must be paid at least the minimum wage, as well as overtime for extra hours. If an private employer wants you to work for free, it must provide you with a genuine educational and training experience. Otherwise, you have the right to be paid.

This article explains how the Department of Labor decides whether a job qualifies as an internship and what to do if you think you should be getting paid.

Rules for Internships

Internships can be an amazing learning experience; unfortunately, they can also be a form of exploitation, in which employers take advantage of young people desperate for work. To crack down on illegal internship programs, the federal Department of Labor has come up with a six-part test to determine whether a job really qualifies as an internship, for which the intern need not be paid. If your job doesn’t meet these requirements, it isn’t a legal internship.

  • The work is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment. The more classroom or academic work involved, the more likely a job will be classified as an internship. For instance, if the work is part of a college class for which the student is getting credit, it is more likely to be an internship. Similarly, work that trains the intern for a variety of jobs in the field, rather than simply to work for that employer, is more likely to be considered an internship.
  • The work benefits the intern, not the employer. If the intern is simply carrying out the usual work of the employer (by, for example, filing papers, dealing with customers and clients, running errands, or acting as an administrative assistant), the employer is the primary beneficiary of the internship. An intern who is doing the same type of work that paid employees do, or who performs work that contributes to the employer's service or product, is probably entitled to compensation.
  • The intern isn’t displacing regular employees and is closely supervised by the company. A company that replaces paid employees with unpaid interns, or brings on unpaid interns during busy periods to supplement its paid staff, likely should be paying its interns. Similarly, if an intern is subject to the same supervision as regular employees, the intern probably should be paid. On the other hand, if the internship is mainly job shadowing under the close supervision of company employees in order to learn about their job functions (and not actually producing work), the internship can likely be unpaid.
  • The employer doesn’t get any immediate benefit from the intern’s work. In fact, the employer may even find its work occasionally hampered by the internship. An employer that is truly providing training, shadowing, and instruction to an intern might be a bit slowed down by these activities, for example. On the other hand, an intern that is simply performing regular work for the employer starts to look more like an employee that should be paid.
  • The intern is not necessarily promised a job at the end of the internship. A true internship is a for a fixed period of time, with no guarantee of a job at the end of the internship. Someone who is expected to work an unpaid “trial period” before getting hired on as a regular employee is likely not an intern.
  • The company and the intern understand that the internship is unpaid. An employer can't hire you as a regular employee and then later tell you that the work will be unpaid, for example.

If Your Job Doesn’t Qualify as an Internship

Does your internship meet all of the requirements above? If not, you may be entitled to all of the protections of regular employment, including at least the minimum hourly wage, overtime, paid breaks (if provided by your state), and more.

Depending on the laws of your state, you may be entitled to the following damages:

  • Unpaid minimum wage. You may be entitled to at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 for each hour worked, including certain travel time and training time. If your state or local government has set a higher minimum wage, as many do, you are entitled to the higher hourly wage. (Find out your state's rules at State Wage and Hour Laws).
  • Meal and rest breaks. Some states require employers to provide meal and rest breaks, some of which must be paid. You are entitled to your regular wages for any paid breaks, as well as any unpaid breaks that you had to work though. And, in some states, you can receive penalties for not receiving your meal and rest breaks.
  • Unpaid overtime. If you worked more than 40 hours in a week, you are entitled to one-and-a-half times the applicable minimum wage. Some states also have a daily overtime standard (for example, you may be entitled to overtime if you worked more than eight hours in one day) or other overtime requirements.
  • Payday and final paycheck violations. The laws of many states require you to be paid at certain intervals (for example, twice per month). Many states also have rules on when employees must receive their final paychecks (for example, at the time of separation or at the next regular payday). An employer that violates these rules may owe penalties.

To find out more, see Do You Have an Unpaid Wage Claim?

If you believe you should have been paid for your internship, talk to an employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can go through the facts of your case to determine whether you are legally entitled to be paid. A lawyer can also explain the various strategies available to try to get your unpaid wages, including writing a demand letter to your employer, filing a wage claim with your state’s labor department, or filing a lawsuit. To learn more about how a lawyer can help you with your claims, see Unpaid Wages: Do You Need a Lawyer?

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