Is Your Unpaid Internship Legal?

Posted by Liz Seasholtz on January 9, 2013

Unpaid internships seem like a win-win: The employers get free labor and the interns get work experience and a glossy title to add to their resumes.

But unfortunately, many unpaid internships end up being legally questionable: Interns walk away without a paycheck and without any new skills. Before you start your unpaid internship, ask yourself these 5 questions to test whether or not your internship is up to Uncle Sam’s (and the Department of Labor’s) standards.

  1. Does your internship have an educational component? You won’t be sitting in a lecture hall and learning Workplace Lessons 101, but you should receive training and learn transferrable skills that you can use in future jobs. At the start of the internship your employer should outline goals and projects for your summer.
  2. Are you replacing a position normally filled by a fulltime employee? If so, this is a big red flag that the internship is illegal. For example, if an employer uses interns as substitutes for fulltime workers during a busy season, they need to be paid.
  3. Will you work closely with a supervisor and learn from other employees? You should have a defined supervisor and receive more direction than fulltime employees. If you’re going to spend your days isolated in a cubicle, that’s a problem.
  4. Is the internship more beneficial to you or the company? The answer should be you! Of course you’ll be helping around the office, completing projects, and participating in meetings, but at the end of the day the employer is getting free labor—and you should be getting industry exposure, learning new skills, and completing projects to add to your resume.
  5. Are you guaranteed a job at the end of the internship? Surprisingly, you should not be. The focus should be on learning, not on grooming you to be a full-time employee. Also make sure your unpaid internship has a fixed duration—you don’t want to still be the unpaid intern come next Thanksgiving.

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