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Are Unpaid Internships Legal?

Internships are the step between education and career where you learn about an industry while getting work experience, but the definition is still blurred. You pay for higher education, and you are paid for a job, so what does that make an internship?

Many college students find internships are a way to get experience in a career field they are interested in. Paid internships are rare, and a majority of them are unpaid. In a recent case, a federal judge ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime law by not paying interns who worked on the sets of the movies Black Swan and 500 Days of Summer. The interns performed the same tasks as paid workers, yet they were not paid for their labor.

Because of this, many companies might start to rethink whether it is worth the legal risk offering unpaid internships. Critics claim that unpaid internships are a way to exploit young workers who would do anything to get a possible foot in the door of a major company, and to spice up their resumes in a competitive job market.

Unpaid internships are legal, but can easily break some rules and regulations regarding hiring unpaid interns. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, unpaid internships must meet  the following criteria to be considered legal:

–   Must be given educational training

–   Be beneficial to the intern

–   It can’t displace regular employees, but works under close supervision or existing staff members

–   The employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern

–   The intern is not entitled to a job after the conclusion of the internship

–   It is understood by both parties there is no entitlement to wages during time spent in the internship.

Still, these are very vague definitions to what an intern is. For example, are interns displacing qualified candidates for a position? Interns can do work that a regular employee could do, but for free. Would that be considered displacing a worker? Is this considered free labor? Also, some employers may want to give their interns more responsibility and less supervision for doing a good job, but this can easily stray away from the education aspect of an internship and become more like a job with no pay.

The word “internship” will remain vague when it comes to its definition. Students participating in unpaid internships should remember that they are there for educational purposes and training to learn about the field or career. If they feel as if they are simply providing free labor, they should speak to someone about the problem. With such an ambiguous term, going off course from the criteria for an unpaid internship is easy, and should always be monitored to avoid legal repercussions.

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