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Unpaid Internships in Los Angeles a Slippery Legal Slope

May 18, 2013

Many students eager and even recent graduates eager to get a leg up in their career field are embarking on internships this summer, and many of those positions will be unpaid. intern4.jpg While Los Angeles Employment Attorney Vincent Howard of HOWARD LAW recognizes that this can be a golden opportunity for those just breaking into competitive fields.

However, what it shouldn't be is free labor. In fact, one of the primary legal tests to determine whether an unpaid internship violates the law involves the benefit to the employer. If the firm is benefiting a great deal from your work and services, chances are, they're overstepping their bounds.

Historically, few of them were ever reported. Interns had viewed it as some punishing right of passage, and they worried that going up a powerful firm or well-connected colleagues so early in their careers might stunt their ability to find work after graduation. That's still a concern for some, but the culture is changing.

A number of high-profile cases have spotlighted the issue in a way that it's never been before. Recently in Los Angeles, a former fashion design intern filed suit against a fashion powerhouse where she had worked unpaid, alleging that the terms of the agreement had violated the regulations set forth by the California Industrial Welfare Commission. Those laws mandate that workers be paid no less than $8 hourly and time-and-a-half for the hours they work over 40 each week. The firm also failed, she says, to provide rest and meal periods.

A recent survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that approximately half of all college seniors had held an internship at some point. That's more than double the rate that reported the same just 20 years ago.

However, legal protections for interns have been slow to keep pace. But as cases like the one above continue to be filed, that is changing.

It's a misconception that receipt of school credit alone makes an unpaid internship legal. In fact, the U.S. Labor Department does not consider that to be one of the core factors it considers when weighing the legality of an internship. Rather, the agency holds that the following six criteria must be met in order for an unpaid internship to be legal:

  • Even though it takes place at the employer's facilities, the internship should provide similar training to what might be offered in an educational environment;
  • The experience is to benefit the intern;
  • The intern should not displace regular employees, but rather works under the close supervision of the staff who is already there;
  • The employer gets no immediate advantage from the work of the intern. In fact, operations may be impeded;
  • The intern isn't guaranteed a job at the end of the internship;
  • Both the employer and the intern are at an understanding prior to the beginning of the work that the time spent will be unpaid.
We hope that if you are taking on an internship this summer that it will be a fulfilling experience that will help bolster your future opportunities. But if you believe you have been advantage of, contact one of our employment lawyers to discuss your options.

Orange County Employment Attorney VINCENT HOWARD at HOWARD LAW can help. Call toll-free at 1-800-872-5925 or send us a message online.

Additional Resources: Unpaid internships must walk careful legal line, May 20, 2013, By Rachael Levy, Chicago Tribune

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