Summer is the high season for internships and summer jobs for scores of college and high school students. Many also seek these real-world experiences during the school year, too. However, knowing your employment status and which laws apply to your situation is as important as your workplace experiences.

Employee, Intern or Something Else?

Employment relationships aren't as simple as a business hiring people to get the job done. Several types of laws guide and impact workplace relationships. These laws cover your wages and hours, on-the-job injuries and liability when someone causes harm or damage. The first step in applying these laws is knowing what the workplace relationships are. Are you an employee? If you aren't, how do these laws apply to you?

Many people arrive at an "intern" position through school. Internship might be part of required coursework for a degree or program. Some students seek internships as practical experience even if it's not required.

Paid or Unpaid: A Key Distinction

Whether or not you're paid wages, or are entitled to wages is a key issue. Federal wage and hour law, the Fair Labor Standards Act, addresses whether interns must be paid. Most often, interns at "for-profit" private businesses are treated as employees, and the FLSA governs wage and hour issues. Doing common office tasks can be enough to establish employee status.

Employers need to pay close attention to an intern's status, whether paid or unpaid. The economy has driven job seekers to get a foot in the door in any way they can. If an internship isn't part of a legitimate program, the employer could run afoul of wage and hour laws if an intern is really acting as an employee.

FLSA: Criteria for Unpaid Interns

Deciding if someone is an unpaid intern turns on six factors:

  1. Is the internship similar to training received in an educational environment?
  2. Is the internship for the intern's benefit?
  3. Does existing staff supervise the intern, and are regular staff displaced?
  4. The employer must provide training without receiving benefit from the intern's efforts. Business operations may even be impeded by facilitating the internship
  5. Employment isn't assured when the intern completes her program
  6. The parties understand the intern isn't entitled to wages

When you're an employee, and sometimes a volunteer, your employer must provide certain protections, such as worker's compensation and liability insurance coverage. It can be important if you're injured or you're involved in a mishap, such as a car accident while carrying out your job duties.

Unpaid Interns' Duties

If you're an unpaid intern, make sure your bases are covered for worker's comp and liability insurance. A good place to start is with your school's internship resources. Your school should be able to tell you what state laws and regulations apply and whether you need to arrange for any insurance. The answer may vary; not every situation is alike.

You should expect this information from your internship supervisor as well, and it should be in writing. Don't be shy and speak up if you have questions or concerns - it shows you're informed, interested and serious about your internship. You'll also avoid unwelcome surprises, such as finding out you don't have coverage after an accident.

You'll also need to take care of these status and insurance issues if you've arranged an informal internship on your own.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What should I do if I'm an unpaid intern, but I find I'm really acting as an employee? Can and should I do anything?
  • I was injured on company premises while serving an unpaid internship. My health insurance won't cover all bills. Can I look to my internship sponsor for payment?
  • My business sponsors internships with a local college. Can you review my intern program for labor law and insurance issues?

Tagged as: Labor and Employment, Wage and Hour Law, summer jobs, internships, labor lawyer