Are You An Intern or An Unpaid Employee?

Internships can be a fantastic way to get real-life work experience and potentially line yourself up for a fulltime job. Bill Gates spent a summer interning at the U.S. House of Representatives, Anderson Cooper invested time as an intern for the CIA, and even Steve Jobs jumped on the electronics assembly line for Hewlett-Packard at age 12. These success icons weren’t afraid to start at the ground floor and work their way up, but they also knew their worth in the workplace.girl surrounded by textbooks

Six Key Factors to Consider

To find out if you are an unpaid intern who should be a paid employee, ask yourself these six questions:

  • Am I learning something I otherwise couldn’t in school?
  • Who is benefitting more, the company or me?
  • Have I replaced a paid employee for free?
  • Am I only doing remedial work for my supervisor’s direct benefit?
  • Am I guaranteed a job when the internship is over?
  • Was I promised wages I haven’t received?

These questions represent six factors the Court considers when reviewing cases where an intern might be taken advantage of by a for-profit private sector business. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, The Department of Labor has decided that if a business does not provide an intern with an educational environment that falls under specific guidelines, they could be subject to a lawsuit.


Trainees Versus Interns – In Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people who work for their personal advantage rather than that of their employer are exempt from federal requirements. For example, a student programmer may shadow a professional programmer for free over the summer as they prepare to take on challenging courses during the fall semester.

Key Takeaways

Paid or unpaid, internships can be an incredibly valuable step towards building a solid base for your future career. However, it is important for an individual to fully understand the details surrounding his or her internship before accepting the position. During your orientation, a company may include paperwork that says you agree to work for free and do not expect compensation for hours worked nor intellectual property shared. Be sure to have a full understanding of these documents before signing them. If you have questions, or you believe a company has violated the six factors, call a labor lawyer immediately.

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