When is an unpaid internship illegal?

WRITTEN BY: Jamie Ballard

Internships are an important part of almost any career. Whether you’re in liberal arts, engineering, mathematics, or media, an internship is practically a prerequisite to get a job after college. If you’re lucky, you can find a paid one, but for those of us who start smaller, unpaid internships could be a good stepping stone.

However, you’ve probably also heard a lot of commotion about unpaid internships and how they can sometimes be illegal. Some places offer course credit in lieu of minimum wage pay.

The U.S. Department of Labor declares that there are six standards that must be met for an intern to work unpaid.

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar 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.

If all of these standards are met, then no formal employment relationship is made, essentially meaning that the unpaid internship is legal (since minimum wage and overtime laws don’t apply to the intern).

You also want to check with your school. Many offer internship classes in exchange for course credit. However, if you accept an unpaid internship outside of the class, this can sometimes jeopardize your ability to enroll in the class later - be sure to check first!

If all else fails, you can usually take an internship with a nonprofit agency. Most of the time, school rules prohibit for-profit internships without course credit, meaning nonprofits are fair game (and a great way to build your resume).

If you’re in doubt about whether or not your potential internship is legal or not, do your research before accepting it.