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Employment Law Issues Regarding Unpaid Interns

Imagine that you are trying to gain professional experience and, therefore, accept an unpaid internship at a company in your desired field. As an intern, you learn that your primary duties are to get coffee, perform filing, and complete other relatively minor administrative tasks that would normally be performed by an administrative assistant or similar position. Though you are expected to work long hours, you never receive a paycheck or any benefits as compensation. Additionally, your supervisor regularly makes inappropriate gestures and comments of a sexual nature and finally terminates your internship because you refused unwanted sexual advances. Suddenly, you find yourself highly disturbed without anything to show for your long days spent at your internship—no relevant experience, no good recommendation, and definitely no paycheck. 

Though this hypothetical scenario may seem disturbing, situations like the above happen for unpaid interns on a regular basis because unpaid interns have not historically been awarded the same legal protections as paid employees. In fact, unpaid interns often have very few legal employment rights at all despite performing regular work for a company.

Only in the past few years has the spotlight been focused on unpaid interns and the rights they should be afforded. With the job market downturn, many people began turning to unpaid internships to build their resumes while some employers viewed eager unpaid interns as a way to obtain free labor with few to no legal repercussions. The following are some of the developments in unpaid intern employment laws in the United States.

Sexual harassment and discrimination

It may seem appalling that unpaid interns can undergo sexual harassment or other types of blatant discrimination with no legal recourse. However, no federal law currently exists that prohibits harassing or discriminating behavior toward unpaid interns. In 2013, Oregon was the first state to address the issue when its legislature extended anti-discrimination and harassment protections to unpaid interns. A few other states have since followed suit, including California and New York, after a highly publicized case lost by a New York intern who was forcibly groped by her boss. Once the civil courts ruled[1] that no legal relief was available for the victim, New York legislators realized the need for a change in the law.

Unfortunately, Florida does not yet have these protections in place for unpaid interns. This means that interns could hypothetically be fired or treated unfairly based on race, religion, gender, and other factors that are generally protected. Even more frightening is the potential for sexual harassment without legal consequences. Many interns may believe that the experience is necessary for their professional future, so they may think they have no choice but to simply withstand such inappropriate sexual harassment. 

Minimum wage

Another hot button issue with unpaid interns is whether or not some internships should actually be exempt from minimum wage requirements. The government does recognize that, in order to justify receiving free labor, a company must in return provide certain educational benefits to interns that make the experience useful. Specifically, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) sets out the following test[2] to see if a position should qualify as an unpaid internship:

  1. The intern receives training that resembles what they would learn in an educational environment.
  2. The intern primarily benefits from the experience.
  3. The intern does not take the place of another paid staff member.
  4. The company receives no immediate advantage from the work of the intern and, at times, may actually have operations interrupted to train the intern.
  5. No job entitlement is necessarily promised following the internship.
  6. Both the intern and the company have a clear understanding that the intern will not be paid for hours worked. 

In recent court cases filed by interns, the plaintiffs have argued that their tasks were administrative and menial, that they did not receive any beneficial training relevant to the industry and that they, therefore, should have been paid at least a minimum hourly wage for their work. While the results of these cases have been mixed, the cases did draw attention to the issue of internship programs complying with DOL guidelines in order to justifiably withhold wages from the interns. As a result, many large companies have redesigned or even completely eliminated unpaid internship programs. 

If you are an unpaid intern who believes your duties do not fit into the internship classification, your rights may have been violated under several different employment laws. You should always contact an experienced employment lawyer at the Dolman Law Group in Clearwater for a free consultation. Call today at (727) 451-6900 to discuss your case. 

Dolman Law Group
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33756



[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2013-10-08/unpaid-intern-
[2] http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm