As millions of young people begin their internships this summer, it is a good idea to be reminded of what an intern really is. It is extremely common for young people to be brought on as “interns” by small businesses – and not so small businesses – and, instead, find themselves being treated as unpaid workers. But managers and business owners who treat interns like unpaid workers are in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, as well as laws in many states and local municipalities.
What is the difference between an intern and an employee? There are six defining criteria for internships according to federal law, which regards an internship as a training program rather than a type of employment. The criteria are:
1) The intern’s must receive professional training, similar to the training that he or she would receive at a vocational school.
2) This training must be explicitly for the intern’s professional betterment (being trained in office humor and pencil sharpening does not qualify.)
3) The intern must not be displacing a regularly paid employee – in other words, performing a paid employee’s work without receiving pay.
4) The intern’s work must not provide any immediate advantage to the employer.
5) The intern is in no way entitled to a job at the end of the internship.
6) Both the intern and the employee understand that the intern is not entitled to wages, since he or she does not provide work that is immediately advantageous to the employer. (Interns may be awarded stipends, however.)
If you’re participating in an internship this summer – either as intern or employer – it’s a good idea to keep in mind exactly what an internship is about. Interns are students continuing their education in a real-world working environment, not providers of free, disposable labor. It is a violation of federal law to promise a training program to a young person and then deliver nothing but unpaid busy-work, and business owners face steep fines and penalties for this infraction. Know your rights.
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