During the summer, it is fairly common for companies to offer internships to high school and college students. Students get valuable experience with a company that improves their job prospects after they graduate, and employers get an opportunity to audition prospective employees.
While some internships come with a fair wage, others are unpaid. Given state and federal employment laws, are unpaid internships legal?
The quick answer is: it depends on the circumstances. Generally speaking, unpaid internships may comply with state and federal wage and hour laws if they satisfy certain criteria. These rules are in place so that employers do circumvent federal minimum wage laws by simply naming seasonal temporary employees "interns." This post will highlight a few of the factors the U.S. Department of Labor may use to determine if an unpaid internship properly follows federal law.
Whether the experience supplements classroom - An unpaid internship must utilize or expand upon training or education previously provided in a classroom environment. This may mean that a particular class must have been completed as a prerequisite to the internship.
The intern must benefit from the job - In the same vein, the intern usually receives some type of academic credit that will be used to satisfy graduation requirements.
Regular employees can still work - Permanent employees must not be displaced by unpaid interns, and any interns working on a temporary basis must be supervised by an existing, permanent employee.
If you are putting together a new internship program or have accepted students into one and have questions about proper compensation, an experienced employment law attorney can advise you.