The Basics of Hiring Interns

Small businesses have long used unpaid internships as a way to lower costs. If you run a for-profit business and plan on offering unpaid internships, there are specific requirements you must comply with.  In such circumstances, the relationship must be for the primary benefit of the intern and not the employer. An employer who fails to pay interns who are otherwise entitled to pay may be liable for unpaid wages, taxes, interest and penalties.

The U.S. Department of Labor has adopted a seven-factor primary beneficiary test for analyzing whether an individual is an intern or an employee entitled to compensation.  Previously, the agency had promulgated a different six-factor test, which some circuits applied and others rejected.


Test for Unpaid Interns and Students

Courts have used the “primary beneficiary test” to determine whether an intern or student is, in fact, an employee under the FLSA.  In short, this test allows courts to examine the “economic reality” of the intern-employer relationship to determine which party is the “primary beneficiary” of the relationship. Courts have identified the following seven factors as part of the test:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.

  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.

  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.

  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.

  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.

  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.

  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

If analysis of these circumstances reveals that an intern or student is actually an employee, then he or she is entitled to both minimum wage and overtime pay under the FLSA. On the other hand, if the analysis confirms that the intern or student is not an employee, then he or she is not entitled to either minimum wage or overtime pay under the FLSA.

Also note that in addition to these federal requirements, individual states may have additional requirements that need to be satisfied. Check your state’s Department of Labor for more information.

There are some exceptions to the above rule. The FLSA exempts certain people who volunteer to perform services for a state or local government agency or who volunteer for humanitarian purposes for non-profit food banks. It also recognizes an exception for individuals who volunteer their time, freely and without anticipation of compensation, for religious, charitable, civic, or humanitarian purposes to non-profit organizations. Unpaid internships for public sector and non-profit charitable organizations, where the intern volunteers without expectation of compensation, are generally permissible.