Warning: Your Unpaid Internship Might Be Illegal

Warning: Your Unpaid Internship Might Be Illegal

Internships can be a valuable way to gain experience while working toward your degree, but they’re not all created equal. Some come with a paycheck while others compensate with academic credit. There can be value in unpaid internships, but they can open you up to exploitation and less protection under labor laws.

The Department of Labor isn’t able to oversee unpaid internships with the same rigor it does other jobs, which means it’s often up to students to determine the legality of an internship opportunity. Here’s what you need to know about labor laws and unpaid internships.

The Fine Print

Interns aren’t technically employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act, so there isn’t any federal requirement that they be paid. However, interns must be the primary beneficiary in the arrangement between the intern and the employer for the internship to be legal.

To determine the legality of an unpaid internship, the Department of Labor outlines these terms:

  • There is no expectation of compensation.
  • You receive hands-on training as you would in an educational setting as part of the internship.
  • You receive some form of academic credit.
  • Your academic commitments are the priority, and your internship duties do not conflict with your academic calendar.
  • The timeframe of the internship is limited to a period of beneficial learning.
  • Your work doesn’t replace the work of paid employees.
  • There is a clear understanding of no guaranteed job offer once the internship is completed.

What to Do if You Suspect Your Internship Is Illegal

Have you taken an unpaid internship that doesn’t meet the above criteria? Raise the issue with your supervisor. See if they can work with you to restructure the internship so you can get the education and experience you deserve. If that doesn’t work, ask to be paid.

If you aren’t able to restructure the internship to meet your educational needs and your boss still doesn’t want to pay you, file a complaint with the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. Once you file a claim, the department will investigate, and if they determine your employer did violate labor laws, an investigator will meet with you to determine how best to correct the situation.

Your educational institution should be able to connect you with the right opportunities, giving you valuable work experience while furthering your education. If you come across an unpaid internship on your own, consider whether it meets the Department of Labor’s criteria. If it doesn’t, you may be better off avoiding it.

~Here’s to Your Success!

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