Attention current and future interns! We know that this is an exciting time for you. You’re about to embark on the early stages of your professional careers—a journey that for most of us makes up a significant portion of our adult lives and contributes greatly to our sense of self, happiness, and fulfillment. Internships are great opportunities for you to begin figuring out your strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, interests and passions, and can really help guide you toward what you want to do with your work life.
Yes, it’s an exciting time of personal exploration and discovery—but that doesn’t mean you should blindly race forward without knowing a few things first. Understanding some of the basic rules regarding internships—including your rights as an unpaid intern or paid employee—will help ensure that your work experience is as productive and impactful as possible, and that your hard work and efforts are rightfully respected and rewarded.
The U.S. Department of Labor, in an effort to protect the rights of interns and employees across industries and job positions, have established regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to determine if the nature of the work an individual is performing qualifies them as an unpaid intern or an actual employee—which means that they qualify for FLSA employee protections and benefits, such as a minimum wage and overtime pay. In order to determine whether an intern or student is actually an employee, the FLSA lists the following seven factors to consider:
1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.
Once you determine if your position falls under the category of an unpaid internship or actual employment, you can then determine what rights you’re entitled to—either as an intern or as an employee. Keep in mind that your basic rights are also protected in the workplace, which includes your right to a safe environment that’s free from discrimination and harassment of all types. If you ever have any questions or concerns regarding your rights, either contact the HR department of the company you’re working for or speak to a parent, trusted friend, or mentor.
If you’re about to start an internship, you should first know your rights in the workplace, to help ensure that you have a great experience. Use the information provided here, along with the United States Department of Labor’s website, to get informed and prepared for your first day on the job. Good luck!