It's that time of year again when college students and some high school students in Texas begin summer internships. Internships are a great way for young people to gain real world experience in the workforce. It helps them pick up skills, strengthen their resumes and learn whether a particular type of work is a good fit for them. However, as we have previously discussed in this employment law blog, in some cases interns are exploited.
A number of interships are unpaid. In some cases, that is legal because it is a learning experience for the intern, and one that the employer puts considerable effort into. In other cases, however, the interns are essentially doing the work of a paid employee--and, as such, they really should be paid.
The laws that regulate internships might be somewhat complicated for employers and interns, but that does not mean that these laws can be ignored.
When these laws are ignored, lawsuits often follow. The Charlie Rose Show is among a number of other employers that have recently been sued by interns who claim that they were doing the work of employees and thus should have been paid.
The U.S. Department of Labor has pretty clear regulations that spell out the rules for unpaid internships, but the basic guideline is simply whether the internship exists primarily to benefit the interns or to benefit the company.
For example, if the intern is gaining educational experience similar to what could be gained in a classroom, it is probably OK for the internship to be unpaid. However, if the intern is performing important work that a paid employee would be doing if the intern wasn't there, the intern is clearly benefitting the company by working for free and that probably is not legal.
Interns who are paid must receive fair wages in accordance with federal and state wage and hours laws. Employers and interns may wish to seek legal advice if they are unsure of whether an internship should be paid.
Source: Houston Chronicle, "The changing way of internships," Kevin Troutman, May 31, 2013