Just Hire an Intern? Understanding the Risks Associated with Unpaid Internships

Aurthor: Annie Smiddy

Hiring an unpaid intern is a risky endeavor. The law presumes anyone who “suffers or permits” someone to work has employed that person. Employees are protected by the wage and hour laws, and failing to abide by these laws can expose a business to substantial liability. California’s Department of Labor Standards and Enforcement (the agency that regulates wage and hour laws) adopted the federal approach to applying an exemption to the wage and hour laws for “interns.” The DLSE uses a six-factor test, and ALL factors must be met for a person to be considered a true intern under California law:

  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.

Comment: The DLSE commented that this element is satisfied when “an intern’s use of the employer’s computers, network systems, and tools to perform tasks” was “directly related to training and the educational and vocational objectives of the program.” Avoid assigning mundane or routine administrative tasks (such as running errands or making photocopies). Provide resources not necessarily available to the intern. Train, educate, supervise!

  1. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.

Comment: The internship should be “directly tied to the core components of the educations objectives” of the intern. Work with a university to provide school credit in exchange for the internship, and adhere to the university’s rules regarding school credit.

  1. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.

Comment: Avoid clerical work, or work that is typically assigned to employees. Make sure that the intern is being closely supervised by employees, and not working on independent tasks.  However, some incidental work will not defeat the exemption “so long as such work does not unreasonably replace or impede the educational objectives for the intern and effectively displace regular workers.”

  1. 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;

Comment: Benefit to the intern is not sufficient to maintain the intern exemption; there must also be no immediate benefit to the company. Keep track of the time spent supervising and training the intern. Avoid assigning work that is necessary to the business that would typically be rendered by an employee. While “[t]he performance of the described tasks performed by interns at the placement sites has some benefit to the placement business,” the DLSE requires that “any such limited benefit is counter-balanced by impediments to the employer’s operations in both time and economic costs in teaching the intern the activities, reviewing any work performed as well as immediate economic costs to the business in participating in the program.”

  1. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

Comment: The internship cannot be an extended job interview. The exemption is not defeated by hiring the individual after the internship, but make sure to clearly state this in a written agreement between the parties prior to beginning the internship.

  1. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Comment: Again, written agreements are crucial!

Since the test is a multi-factored, factual analysis, there is inherent uncertainty in the ultimate determination of whether an intern is actually an employee. Under wage and hour laws, if the intern is misclassified, the company could be liable for damages and penalties, including, but not limited to, unpaid wages, liquidated damages for failing to pay minimum wage, unpaid overtime, pay statement penalties, premium pay for missed meal and rest periods, and waiting time penalties. To minimize exposure, consult with an attorney to ensure that your internship program meets the DLSE’s requirements, work with a university to provide school credit, provide a written agreement, and keep records of the project goals, training procedures, time you spend supervising and training, and time the intern spends performing the internship. Offer meal and rest periods, and understand that additional rules apply if hiring a minor.

Use the following link to see the DLSE’s opinion letter regarding the test of whether an intern is actually an employee: https://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/opinions/2010-04-07.pdf

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