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Will Your Interns Sue You for Unpaid Wages?

April 8, 2014

The end of last summer’s internship season was marked by a wave of class-action lawsuits filed by interns against entertainment, sports, and publishing companies. The interns sued for unpaid wages and overtime claiming that they in reality were employees of these companies. These much publicized lawsuits, including those against Condé Nast Publications, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., Hearst Corporation, and Sean “Diddy” Combs’s Bad Boy Entertainment, led many businesses to end their internship programs altogether. Here is what you must know before allowing an unpaid intern to “work” for your for-profit business.

An intern for a for-profit business must be paid unless the internship meets the requirements of the narrow “learner/trainee” exemption under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), the law governing payment of minimum wages and overtime. Failure to meet this narrow exemption could result in costly litigation and possibly significant liability; some of the businesses recently sued have had thousands of interns in the purported “class” of plaintiffs.

The U.S. Department of Labor (the “DOL”) applies a six-criteria test to unpaid interns at private-sector, for-profit businesses to determine whether the “learner/trainee” exemption is met. The DOL’s six criteria are:

  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.

This test may be hard for a for-profit business to pass if it receives an advantage from the services of the intern, for example if the intern performs low-level administrative and clerical tasks. Although most courts have applied a more flexible test, a number of courts have deferred to the DOL’s more stringent test, which in turn has prompted the wave of recent lawsuits. To avoid claims, companies in doubt about whether they will pass the DOL’s test should pay their interns at least minimum wage (and overtime unless they restrict interns from “working” for more than 40 hours per week) and keep accurate records of the interns’ time “worked.”

For more information on this topic, and other information about having an internship program, please contact a member of the Employment Practice Group.