Guide to Laws About Internships in the U.S.

Laws that Interns (Paid or Unpaid) Need to Know

This page covers the federal laws that apply to interns and internships in the U.S. Your state may have additional laws related to internships, so be sure to check your state’s laws for more.

Is my unpaid internship legal?

In general, if you do any work for a for-profit company, you must be paid at least minimum wage. However, there are some exceptions, including unpaid internships. BUT for an unpaid internship to be legitimate, the intern (not the employer) must be the “primary beneficiary” of the arrangement.

To determine whether the intern is the primary beneficiary, the factors are:

  1. 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 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 internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

Not all of these are required, but the more that apply, the more likely the unpaid internship is OK under minimum wage laws. Also keep in mind this only applies to for-profit companies. For work done for non-profit organizations or the government, it’s generally OK to have an unpaid internship (or volunteer work) as long as it is clear to both the intern and employer that it will be unpaid.

Background Note: The “primary beneficiary” standard is a recent update in the law, as of January 2018. The prior standard had been interpreted as that potentially any benefit to the employer was not allowed.

See more at the Department of Labor website.

Do employment laws apply to my internship?

If it is a paid internship, most employment laws will apply. But if it is a legitimate unpaid internship (see above), then most employment laws do NOT apply, except for discrimination law.

See our Guide to Laws for Employees.

Share the Legal Info With Your Friends: