Certain things have become the recognizable signs of spring. Budding leaves. Flowers. Chirping birds. And summer intern resumes. Especially during a slow or recovering economy, HR professionals are likely to receive many resumes from eager students or recent graduates hoping to work as interns in order to gain valuable experience and networking opportunities. Often, intern candidates offer to work for nothing in exchange for the chance to learn about a job or industry.
Of course the idea, however enticing, of free labor should raise red flags. In fact, the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) has made it clear that, unless specific criteria are met, student “interns” working at for-profit companies are actually student “employees,” subject to the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The DOL has identified the following six criteria for determining whether an individual meets the test for an unpaid intern:
- 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;
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
- 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;
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
Only if an internship program meets all of these requirements can participants be considered unpaid interns. And as you can imagine, meeting all of these requirements can be challenging. For example, the internship program must be structured around classroom or academic experience rather than around the employer’s business operations. For this reason, compliant programs are often developed and overseen by colleges or universities, which then give academic credit for participation. Moreover, the more the interns perform productive work for the employer (as opposed to job shadowing or similar activities), the more likely they will be deemed employees, entitled to minimum wage and overtime under the FLSA. You can find the DOL’s fact sheet on internship programs here.
At the end of the day, private employers seeking to benefit directly from eager students or graduates willing to work for the experience will find it difficult to meet DOL requirements. On the other hand, a company willing to provide work experience in order to be a good corporate citizen or to build relationships with schools or students, can structure an unpaid student intern program to meet those goals and comply with the law.