Labor: When unpaid interns become unpaid employees

Employers should familiarize themselves with the DOL’s 6-part test and guidance on internships

Many students at every education level from high school through graduate school—and even some graduates—view unpaid internships as an opportunity to gain valuable work experience and, ideally, as a stepping stone to gainful employment. When the companies for which they intern benefit from the extra help at little to no cost, the relationship appears to constitute a win-win. In many circumstances, however, the Department of Labor (DOL) disagrees.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) generally requires employers to pay their employees at least minimum wage for all hours worked, as well as overtime for all hours worked over 40 in a week. Internships and training programs are excluded from this requirement only in limited circumstances. Because the FLSA prohibits employees from waiving their rights under the law even if they want to, it is only under those limited circumstances that interns may work without compensation.

Contributing Author

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John Kuenstler

John F. Kuenstler is a partner in the Chicago office of Barnes & Thornburg LLP and a member of the Labor and Employment Department. Mr....

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