Question:

I own an accounting office. Every summer I have a college student work an unpaid internship to give him or her an opportunity to work, and also to help me out. I assume this is permitted because I hear of other businesses doing the same thing. Is what I’m doing legal?

Answer:

A true unpaid internship must meet several criteria. If it does not, a business can be liable for unpaid wages. The producer of the movie “Black Swan” is learning that lesson the hard way. It followed the film industry’s widely accepted practice of unpaid internships. Two interns performed menial work. One prepared coffee, took and distributed lunch orders, took out the garbage, and cleaned the office. The other was an accounting intern and prepared documents, traveled to the set to obtain signatures, and created spreadsheets to track missing information in employee personnel files. They are now suing claiming they were actually employees and are owed wages.

The U.S. Department of Labor uses six criteria to determine if an individual is properly classified as an intern:

  • The training provided must be similar to that which would be given in a vocational school and provide educational experiences that are not typically available in the classroom. A person working in an internship through a school program is more likely to be properly classified as an intern.
  • The training must be for the benefit of the interns. The main objective of the internship program should be the practical application of what the intern has learned in the classroom to enhance his or her marketability in the vocational area. Work that does not apply the individual’s education but just helps the business, like filing or making coffee, does not meet this criterion.
  • Interns must not displace regular employees and should be under close supervision and not performing independent work that can be performed by regular employees.
    The business that provides the training should receive no immediate advantage from the activities of the interns. In fact, the business’ operations may be occasionally impeded because of the time spent working with the intern.
  • An intern cannot necessarily be entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship. Businesses should have interns sign a form that includes a statement that they understand they are not necessarily entitled to a job when the internship is over.
  • Interns are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training. A business can pay an intern a stipend to cover living expenses, but the amount of the stipend must not exceed the reasonable expenses incurred by the intern involved in the program.

To ensure individuals are properly classified as interns under the law, you should make sure that they are applying what they have learned to the tasks they perform in your office, and that they do so under your close supervision. Following the above criteria can protect you from unpaid wage claims in the future. For more information visit www.dol.gov/whd.
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