Unpaid internships a "no-no" with Department of Labor

While job openings are certainly scarce during these recessionary times – and companies are looking for ways to cut costs - those aren’t excuses for doling out unpaid internships to young people eager to get a foot in the door. Federal and state regulators are concerned that employers are abusing internships and using them, in a sense, for free labor.

In fact, the DOL plans to crack down on employers who offer unpaid internships, taking the position that interns are entitled to wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). And to support that position, the previously flexible interpretations of whether or not to pay interns are about to get much stricter.

"If you're a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren't going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law," said Nancy J. Leppink, director of the Department's Wage and Hour Division.

In general, for an unpaid internship to be lawful under the FLSA, the intern must be properly classified as a "trainee" rather than an "employee." To help you determine this, the DOL has developed a six-factor test.

Interns are likely to be deemed “trainees” if:

1) The training is similar to what might be offered in an academic institution or vocational school.
2) The training is for the benefit of the trainees.
3) The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close supervision.
4) The employer derives no immediate benefit from the training, and occasionally the employer's operations may be impeded by the training.
5) Trainees are not entitled to a job at the end of the training period.
6) The employer and trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for time spent in training.

In the meantime, legal experts offer this advice: Assume that all unpaid internships are unlawful, and carefully tailor your training programs for new or prospective employees to avoid liability.

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