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California Employment Law: Are Unpaid Internships Legal in California?

With the economy still in the midst of recovery and unemployment figures at historical highs, unpaid “internships” have become more commonplace then ever. Often, workers are eager to accept an unpaid internship in hopes of getting their foot in the door. Why not? Internships, paid or otherwise, promise to provide you with real world experience to add to your resume. However, it can be difficult to accept an unpaid job especially when you have bills to pay.

Studies show that unpaid internships often do not result in full time employment offers. In fact, you are nearly twice as likely to get a job offer from a paid internship than you are from an unpaid internship, and college graduates who had no internship are about as likely to find a job as those who completed an unpaid internship. Furthermore, unpaid interns are more vulnerable to sexual harassment and age discrimination, both of which are also illegal.

While certain types of employment activities may qualify as an internship, which are exempt from state and federal minimum wage laws, many employers are requiring their interns to perform work that falls outside the meaning of an internship.

What Qualifies as a Legal Unpaid Internship?

The Federal Labor and Standards Act is the primary body of law governing employment and labor laws in the United States. For an unpaid internship to be lawful under federal law, the following six criteria must be met:

  • The internship must provide similar training that would be given in a formal educational environment
  • The internship must be for the benefit of the intern, not the employer
  • The intern must not displace regular employees, rather he should work under close supervision of existing employees
  • The employer cannot receive any immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded as it expends time and resources providing educational experience for the intern
  • The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship
  • Both parties must understand and agree that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship

In addition to federal law, California has it’s own set of labor laws, which are overseen by the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”). While the DLSE had previously set forth an additional five criteria that employers must meet to lawfully employ unpaid interns in an opinion letter, these additional factors were repealed in a 2010 opinion letter issued at the request of a non-profit organization called Year Up, Inc. Thus, unpaid interns in California are subject to the same six-factor test set forth under federal law.

Apart from illegal unpaid internships, there are a number of other ways that unscrupulous employers violate state and federal employment laws, including: overtime violations, wrongful termination, minimum wage violations, workplace safety, workers compensation, discrimination, sexual harassment, and more. If you’ve been the victim of illegal employment practices, you may be entitled to monetary compensation, and the employment law attorneys at Makarem & Associates are here to help you.

Contact us today by phone 310.312.0299 or email [email protected] to discuss your case.

Views expressed are the personal views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of Makarem & Associates, APLC, its partners, employees or its clients. Furthermore, the information provided by the author is not intended to be legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship.