Understand Your Legal Rights as an Unpaid Intern

In a creative industry, professional experience is one of the most important factors in landing that first gig. We've discussed this before in numerous other articles on this blog, but one of the best ways to get that valuable, much-needed experience is through internships. Not only will you get to see first-hand what it's like to work in a professional, creative environment, but you may also have the opportunity to build your portfolio as well as make valuable networking connections. It's not uncommon - especially in a creative field - for interns to not receive payment for their time. Despite all of these benefits, not all internship experiences are as glamorous as they may seem. Unfortunately, many employers take advantage of free labor at the expense of their unpaid interns. Luckily for the intern there are laws in place to protect them from this type of offense. Those laws have been outlined below. Review them as to make sure you aren't an unpaid intern being taken advantage of, or even an employer unintentionally taking advantage of your interns and putting your company at risk.  

Fair Labor Standards Act

In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed by the United States Congress as a statute to protect citizens from unfair treatment by employers. The Act introduced the standard 40-hour work week as well as a minimum wage and stricter child labor laws. Amendments and changes have been made to the Fair Labor Standards Act over the years as times have changed. One of those came recently in 2010 with a whole section on internship rights.  

"When are unpaid internships illegal?"

Despite all of this fancy, legal jargon, when is an unpaid internship not legal? To answer that, the Fair Labor Standards act includes a section on internships including a six-point test to help determine the whether or not an unpaid internship is legal. If not all of the six points below are met, then the employer falls outside the protection of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the intern is entitled to compensation. 1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment; This first point simply means that the internship created by the employer is similar to that of what would be found in a classroom. The obvious purpose of an internship is learning and experience. 2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern; Does your duties as an intern benefit you or the employer. Similarly to the first point, the purpose of an internship is for educational purposes, not to complete mundane tasks of the employer. 3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff; This point simply means that the intern's duties shouldn't be a substitute for hiring a normal employee receiving compensation. If the tasks completed by the intern could have been completed by a paid employee, the intern is then eligible for compensation. To prevent this from happening, the employer should provide supervision by way of job shadowing. This will then create an "educational environment" addressed in the first point. 4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded; This fourth point, similarly to the third, exists as a way to not let employers take advantage of receiving free labor at expense of the intern. 5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and The Fair Labor Standards Act outlines this point to ensure that employers understand that internship programs aren't to be used as "trial periods" for people seeking employment. It also reiterates the first point: internships are for education purposes. 6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship. Before the internship begins, the employer and intern have come to the agreement that the intern won't be receiving compensation for his or her time - pretty straightforward. Just like most laws there are exceptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act. That is that all state or local government agencies, religious and nonprofit organizations aren't required by law to pay their interns. However, don't let this sway you from interning for these types of organizations because you can still gain quality experience and even networking opportunities.  

Fox Searchlight Pictures Lawsuit

Awareness in regard to the roles of unpaid interns took off in 2011 when Fox Searchlight Pictures was sued by two former interns working on the movie, Black Swan, who claimed that they had performed tasks that would normally would have been completed by paid employees. According to an article by the New York Times, the interns "took lunch orders, answered phones, arranged other employees’ travel plans, tracked purchase orders, took out the trash and assembled office furniture." Obviously not duties they had signed up for when they agreed to accept the internship positions. The judge ruled in favor of the interns stating that Fox Searchlight did not create an educational environment and benefited from the interns unpaid work. The interns were to receive minimum wage compensation for their time which equaled about $1,100 for their time.  

In Conclusion

Now we're not saying that if your employer asks to fetch coffee or make the coffee from time to time that you should be up in arms and call the first lawyer you can find. No, we just want you as a creative learner and your employer to be assured that you're receiving a quality, valuable experience and not wasting your time with mundane tasks. Have you had any bad internship experiences? If so, feel free to share them in the comment section below!