What Rights Do Interns Have in the Workplace?

Internships are a necessary part of landing an entry-level job. Often, recent college grads get their first position from pursuing unpaid internships during their time at university. However, it can be difficult to understand the rights and responsibilities interns have in the workplace. What role to they play and do they have any of the same rights as employees?

Laws Pertaining To Interns

In general, paid interns enjoy similar protections to employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act. This sweeping federal legislation outlines rules regarding pay and overtime, as well as other benefits. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also protects paid interns.

However, less clear are rules pertaining to unpaid interns. For example, it might be surprising to learn that many states don’t even have legislation that protects unpaid interns from workplace sexual harassment.

Should You Be A Paid Intern?

The Fair Labor and Standards Act sets forth certain criteria that helps determine if an intern should receive financial compensation:

  • Is the internship similar to what a student would learn in an educational setting?
  • Is the internship solely for the benefit of the student, not the company?
  • Is the internship completely separate from the work of a full time employee?
  • Does the employer receive no immediate benefit from the intern’s work?
  • Is there no guarantee of employment after the internship ends?
  • Do both the employer and intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages?

If ‘yes’ applies to all of these questions, then no employer-employee relationship exists. As such, the employer does not have to provide wages to the employee; it qualifies as a learning experience. As such, the internship should focus on learning about a field of employment, not performing clerical tasks such as photocopying or filing.

The FLSA does not require employers to give interns vacation days or paid sick days. However, local ordinances may require it based on the length of the internship and nature of the work.

Lastly, it’s important to understand the difference between for-profit and non-profit corporations. Non-profits generally have more leeway in hiring unpaid interns, as long as these interns volunteer their time without reservation or expectation of payment. Interns who give their time freely to advance the mission of the non-profit are volunteers and not required to receive financial compensation for their duties.

Internships and Work Hours

The other main concern regarding internships involves work hours – how often can an employer mandate that an intern work? Paid interns who enjoy the same privileges as employees are “non-exempt.” This means that they should earn overtime pay for any hours over 40 in a given week. California also has a law about 8 hour workdays, so an intern is entitled two hours of overtime if he or she works a 10 hour day, regardless of the amount of hours he or she logs per week.

Other rules may exist regarding work hours depending on the intern’s age. In California, 14 is the minimum age for employment as mandated by federal law. Interns aged 14 or 15 may only work three hours on school days and no more than 18 hours during the school week. Minors must have a permit to work

Paid interns enjoy many of the same benefits as employees, such as paid overtime. Unpaid interns, on the other hand, have fewer protections. Interns should be aware of their rights and employers must understand the nature of an intern’s work to avoid violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Many believe that unless the internship is purely educational, interns should receive payment. Regardless of payment, interns should not be subject to harassment or discrimination.