The Trouble with Unpaid Internships

There are strict limitations and guidelines to unpaid internships. Even though unpaid interns are usually college students working for class credit, they are often non-exempt from state and federal wage and hour laws. Therefore, an intern is entitled to payment for all hours worked if their employer does not meet the requirements of unpaid internships.

State and federal laws usually require employers to pay interns at least minimum wage. According to the Los Angeles Daily Journal: “For an employer to be exempt from this requirement, it must devise an educational training program, which can consume time and resources with few benefits to the company.” Not surprisingly, it is very common for employers to disregard this requirement, especially in these financially difficult times. Since there are a lot of people willing to work for free to gain experience, many employers feel unobliged to strictly follow wage and hour laws.

In a recent case, Fox Searchlight Pictures was accused of violating wage and hour laws by failing to provide their unpaid interns with an educational experience. Allegedly, the “Black Swan” interns did not receive educational training that would have contributed to their career goals; they simply completed tasks that normally would have been completed by paid employees. The two interns who initiated this case are trying to get class certification; therefore, they want to start a class action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Ultimately, unpaid internships should primarily be to the benefit of the intern, not the employer. If an intern is taking the place of a regularly paid employee, then they are entitled to at least minimum wage. Thus, if an employer hires an unpaid intern instead of a regular worker to save money, they are in direct violation of wage and hour laws. Above all, unpaid internships are supposed to be learning experiences that provide career preparation. An unpaid intern’s job duties should not be adapted to fundamentally assist in a company’s operations. It should be adapted to provide a beneficial educational experience.

In general, California wage and hour laws regarding unpaid internships are in accordance with the criteria listed on a U.S. Department of Labor fact sheet. According to an article on “In 2010, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) noted in an opinion letter that it has historically followed federal interpretations that recognize the special status of interns who perform some work as part of an educational or vocational program.” In addition to the six standards listed on the Labor Department’s fact sheet, the DLSE added five more criteria to create an “11-factor test.”