Hey Interns, You Have Rights!

Internships are great, especially when they offer experience, education, and even lead to a paying job, but sometimes, they can feel like indentured servitude. Perks, pay, and outcomes may vary depending on the individual internship, but one thing stays the same no matter what the arrangement: you have rights as an intern.

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The United States Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division shares very specific rights and expectations that employers, even non-paying ones, are required to meet for interns. They’re designed to prevent employers from taking advantage of young workers, and it’s important that you know all about them before signing up for any internship. You can check out the full fact sheet on the Department of Labor’s site, but we’ll share the highlights with you here.

  • Should you be getting paid?

    Not every internship is unpaid, but many are, and the Department of Labor has very specific guidelines for participating in unpaid internships. Unpaid internships must follow these criteria:

    1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
    2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
    3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
    4. 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;
    5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
    6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

    If these criteria are not met, the position isn’t lawfully an unpaid program, and interns who work outside of these guidelines have a right to be paid.

  • Are you learning, or working?

    The Department of Labor stresses that internships are more about education than work production, meaning that learning is the primary benefit of the activity. Employers are expected to share exercises, teach skills, and offer learning experiences that can be applied in multiple employment settings and offer an educational benefit. Internships that primarily offer education for skills that can only be applied to one employer aren’t classified as internships, but rather, employee training. Additionally, employers can’t depend on you to get the job done, not because you’re unreliable, but because the Department of Labor requires that interns not be essential to operations.

  • Are you taking someone’s job?

    The Department of Labor frowns upon employers taking on unpaid interns instead of hiring regular workers. According to the fact sheet, “If an employer uses interns as substitutes for regular workers or to augment its existing workforce during specific time periods, these interns should be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a workweek.” In other words, if you’re doing the work of an employee, you have to be paid like one.

  • Will you get a job?

    Although interns may view their position as a trial period for employment, the Department of Labor forbids this kind of relationship and requires that internships not have any sort of job entitlement. That’s bad news for students hoping to turn an internship into a full time job. Of course, employers who appreciate your involvement as an intern can still hire you after the program is over, they just can’t bring you on as an intern with a full time position as part of the plan.

Have you ever participated in an internship program? Did your employer respect your rights as an intern? Please share your experience in the comments.