Top 6 Signs Your Unpaid Internship Should Be Paid

Top 6 Signs Your Unpaid Internship Should Be Paid

 In honor of my daughter landing her first internship, I thought I'd go through once again an issue that comes up every summer. Many internships that are unpaid are exploiting young people for free labor instead of providing a meaningful learning experience.

If your internship is more about scut work and less about learning, you are probably an employee who needs to be paid, not an intern. Here are some top signs that your unpaid internship is really a job that should be paid: 

  1. You aren't learning: An internship is supposed to provide training similar to that you would receive in a vocational school. In other words, you should be learning something helpful to your future career. If you're sorting mail, licking envelopes, filing, digging ditches or picking up the boss's dry cleaning, that work has to be paid. Internship assignments are supposed to build on each other to help you develop more skills, similar to the way each chapter of a textbook builds on the other.  
  2. You have someone else's job: If you find out you're the temp covering for someone on maternity leave or you replaced a salaried guy they thought was making too much money, you have a job, not an internship.
  3. You're on your own: Let's say they toss you in a room and say, "Here's the manual. Do this project on you own. Tell me when it's done." You are an employee.
  4. The company benefits, not you: This is where most intern programs go seriously wrong. The company is supposed to be giving training that benefits you way more than it benefits them. If they can make money off what you're doing, or if you're saving them from having to pay another employee, you probably have to be paid. 
  5. They promise a job at the end: The whole point of the internship is probably that you want them to hire you somewhere down the line. However, if you are guaranteed a job if you complete a specific training period, you're likely a trainee and must be paid. 
  6. Where's my check?: If you go into a job thinking you're going to be paid and they announce only after you start that you're an unpaid intern, you're probably an employee. If you didn't understand before you accepted that there would be no pay while you're training, then you're probably entitled to be paid.

 The Department of Labor has been cracking down on illegal unpaid interships for several years. If your employer screws up, they may owe you wages, overtime, liquidated damages that equal the wages they failed to pay, and your attorney's fees. Here in South Florida, we also have some counties with wage theft ordinances that can even triple the amount you're owed. If your internship isn't what you thought it would be, have until the end of the statute of limitations (generally 2 years under the Fair Labor Standards Act) to wait to see if you get the job you thought you were earning. If you sue, you can sue on your own behalf and on behalf of all the other interns who didn't get paid.

Even if you sign a waiver saying you agree not to be paid, it won't hold up if the internship is really a job, so talk to an employment lawyer in your state about it.

Internships can get you college credits, contacts, community service hours for high school, and maybe even a paid job down the line. That's what the good ones are supposed to do for you. Just beware the ones that turn you into slave labor. Before you accept an internship, get a clear understanding of your job duties, whether you'll be paid, and what the employer expects of you.

If you aren't going to be doing something that puts you on your career path, turn it down. If you find out that it wasn't what you expected, get out of there.

Time is money. That's what they say in business. Make sure you get your money's worth out of your internship. If not, wouldn't you rather spend your summer taking classes, getting a paid job, or texting your friends?

If you have a terrific internship, great. I wish you the best. If not, talk to an employment lawyer about your rights.

See more employment law posts on Donna Ballman's blog, Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home

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