Are Unpaid Internships Legal in California?

It is not uncommon for college students and recent graduates to be offered unpaid internships. Often disguised as opportunities to “learn about” their field and make “connections,” unpaid internships can also be ways for companies and organizations to take advantage of free labor. Some estimates say that there are as many as 1.5 to 2 million unpaid interns working in the United States. Many questions often arise about whether or not unpaid internships are legal under federal and state law.

What Does the U.S. Department of Labor Say About This?

Recently, The US Department of Labor revised its guidelines regarding how to distinguish “employees” from “interns.” While employees must be paid at least the minimum wage in their respective jurisdictions, interns do not have to be paid under certain circumstances.

The new guidelines were released in January of 2018, and they provide seven factors that need to be used to identify the “primary beneficiary” of the internship. The factors are as follows:

  • The worker clearly understands that there is no expectation of compensation.
  • The worker receives training data similar to what would be provided in a traditional “educational environment.”
  • That the internship is tied to the student’s educational program (this typically involves the student receiving formal course credit from the school).
  • That the terms of the internship conforms to and accommodates the intern’s normal working academic calendar and school commitments.
  • The duration of the internship is limited to the period in which the worker would receive “beneficial learning.”
  • That the intern’s work does not displace work typically performed by regular employees.
  • That the intern understands that they have no “entitlement to a paid job” when the internship is over.

Not all of these seven factors have to be met in order for someone to be qualified as an intern. If legal disputes arise, the courts will typically look at each situation on a case-by-case basis.

Does California Have Specific Laws Regarding Interns?

The California Division of Labor Standards and Enforcement (DLSE) has certain rules in place for interns as well. Any businesses that use interns in the state must submit an outline of their proposed internships to the Department. The qualifications required for interns in California are very similar to those required by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Are Unpaid Internships Bad?

With all the focus on minimum wage practices over the last few years, particularly in California, unpaid internships have faced scrutiny. It should be noted that unpaid internships often lead to long and lucrative careers in a person’s chosen field. Unpaid internships that operate within federal and state guidelines can be beneficial to both the intern and the employer. However, there are times when employers take advantage of unpaid interns in violation of federal or state law.

If you suspect that an employer is violating your rights by not paying you for an internship, you may have legal grounds to file a lawsuit. You need to contact a skilled Orange County employment lawyer who can thoroughly examine your case and work to determine if violations have taken place. You may be entitled to various types of compensation, including back pay for your work, benefits that you did not receive that an employee would have received, as well as court costs and legal fees.