The Dept. of Labor frowns on anyone doing a task for free that would normally be part of a paid job. Is your unpaid intern answering phones, filing letters, running errands, sorting mail, working on a company project? If the answer is yes, you may unintentionally be in violation of wage and hour laws.
As a rule of thumb, if the internship is unpaid (sometimes referred to as ‘credit only’), the intern will not be permitted to do work that benefits the company (and yes, answering your phones benefits the company – not the intern). The Dept. of Labor looks at the facts and circumstances of each program on a case by case basis, and generally uses the following six criteria when making a determination on unpaid intern status:
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;
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
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;
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship
While many employers focus on #5 and #6, it is a good idea to focus on #2 and #4. It is critical that the intern derive the benefit, not the company. By way of example, dealing with your social media would be considered a benefit to the company, as would stuffing direct mail envelopes, taking lunch orders, administrative tasks, reception tasks etc.
An intern should generally ’shadow’ a current employee, to learn how he/she does their job and how decisions are made. If the company needs a project done, it is fine for the intern to do the project, but a staff member should also do the project. The work that the intern does is only for their benefit. So, if the company needs the work output, a paid staff member must provide that output.
There is no law against interns stuffing direct mail envelopes, taking lunch orders, performing administrative tasks etc. You simply are required to pay at least the minimum wage, and any overtime that may be incurred.
We often hear “well, it's a formal internship, established by University of Pluto”. Unfortunately, even though the University has a formal internship program, if the intern is engaged in the operations of the employer or performing productive work, that time must be compensated at minimum wage or better.
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- This is the link to view a course sample and/or purchase class(es) CA Respectful Workplace Training
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Vicky brings to Idomeneo over 20 years expertise in human resources management, strategy and transformation. Her HR leadership experience spans various industries, including technology, entertainment and advertising. Awarded the Senior Professional in Human Resources certification by the Human Resources Management Certification Institute, and the Senior Certified Professional designation by the Society for Human Resources Management, Vicky has dedicated her career, and Idomeneo, to providing HR expertise tempered with the day-to-day realities of running a business.