Ask the Lawyer-New Rules For Unpaid Interns

By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq.
Attorney and Counselor at Law
901 Wilshire Drive, Suite 550
Troy, MI 48084
(248) 247-3300
(248) 247-3310 facsimile|


QUESTION: Our high school daughter, 17, would like to get some real life experience in an office, and is willing to work for free. But when we approached a few businesses with the proposal, they said rules for interns were so tough, it just wasn’t worth it. She’s hardworking and learns quickly, what does she need to do to get some marketable experience?

ANSWER: As you and your daughter realized, an internship is a great way to get hands-on job experience. However, until this year, the Department of Labor’s (DOL) guidelines for businesses wanting to take on an intern were so strict that a company was not really allowed to get much benefit from taking on an intern. If the intern did work that would “displace” a regular employee – that is, if they did work for which the company would normally have paid someone – the arrangement could be deemed illegal.

That changed in January, when the DOL issued new rules for internships, which focus on the intern’s education and workplace experience, instead of the benefit the employer receives from the intern’s work.

If the intern is the “primary beneficiary” of the arrangement, the internship will pass DOL muster. The factors the DOL looks at to make this determination include:

The intern and employer both understand the intern will not be compensated for work.
The internship provides training that is similar to that provided in an educational environment.
The internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by related coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
The internship corresponds to the academic calendar (i.e. a semester) and accommodates the intern’s academic commitments.
The internship is of limited duration. It ends once the intern is no longer being provided beneficial learning.
The intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while at the same time provides educational benefit to the intern.
The intern and the employer understand the intern will not be entitled to a job at the end of the internship.
The law has only been in effect for four months; many businesses are not aware of the change. Under the new rules, a business is allowed to benefit from the unpaid labor of energetic young people like your daughter – as long as its benefit is only incidental to the educational benefit and training received by the intern. Tell her to keep trying – and maybe bring a copy of the DOL’s rules with her!

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