One of the main reasons I started this blog was because so few people (employers and interns alike) are aware that many unpaid interns are actually covered by wage laws, just like any other employee. This lack of awareness is what drives the widespread use of unpaid interns as free labor in our country, and increasing knowledge about this issue is one the primary goals of this blog.
Unless an internship program meets specific legal requirements (see “Test Your Internship” on our homepage), the law requires that all interns must be paid.
What legal requirements does an internship program need to meet in order to be exempt from paying its interns? The Department of Labor (DOL) looks at six factors, all of which must be met, when determining whether an internship must be paid, but the ones most often violated are listed below:
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; and most importantly
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;
What this means is that if your internship consisted of you doing work that your employer didn’t want to do, didn’t have time to do, or didn’t know how to do (from running the company’s errands to running the company’s social media) you most likely should have been paid.
What may I be entitled to receive for the work I did at my illegally unpaid internship? How much you stand to gain if you were illegally unpaid depends completely on how many hours you worked, just like any other hourly employee. The more hours you worked, the more you earned. That simple.
An illegally unpaid intern under federal law is entitled to back-wages (regular pay and overtime, if applicable) and “double damages,” as well as attorneys fees and costs. On top of that, interns in some states are entitled to additional damages under state law.
What if I don’t remember how many hours I worked at my internship? It is the employer’s legal responsibility, not yours, to keep records of the hours you worked. However many hours you recollect working is the starting point for calculating damages–the burden of proving how many hours you actually worked is on the employer.
Could I still be entitled to back-wages for my work as an intern if I agreed to work unpaid? Absolutely.
An illegally unpaid intern, like any other employee covered by minimum wage laws, cannot agree to work for less than minimum wage.
The whole purpose of minimum wage law is to protect people with little to no bargaining power from having to “agree” to substandard wages, and courts have repeatedly and explicitly ruled that any agreement in violation of these laws is completely null and void.
We have listed here some of the most frequently asked questions. If you have questions about your specific case, please contact a lawyer for legal advice. All answers are general, and is not legal advice. Nothing written here implies any legal advice or legal representation.