Intern or Employee: Should I Be Getting Paid?


Find out when your employer can treat you as an unpaid intern.



Do you have an unpaid internship that feels suspiciously like a job? Although there are certainly legitimate internships throughout the private sector, which provide interns with important opportunities to learn new skills, there are also plenty of scams. Unless your internship meets all six of the requirements explained below, you should be getting paid. 

Generally speaking, people who work for a company are entitled to be paid. They are protected by wage and hour laws guaranteeing them the minimum wage, overtime, and so on. Unpaid internships are an exception to this general rule. But an employer may call a work opportunity an internship -- for which they will receive work they don't have to pay for -- only if it truly is an educational opportunity for the intern, rather than just unpaid labor. 

The federal Department of Labor (DOL) has said that a work opportunity must meet all six of these requirements to qualify as an unpaid internship or training program, for which the employer does not have to pay the worker:

  • The internship or training program must be similar to the type of training the intern would receive in an educational environment, even if it takes place at the employer's place of business. For example, are there clearly defined learning objectives for the experience? Are you receiving close supervision and help with work assignments? Are there talks, meetings, or events designed to introduce interns to the field? Do interns cycle through each department of the company to learn its role in the big picture? 
  • The program is for the intern's benefit, not the company's. For example, if you are getting valuable experience that you would not be able to get as an entry-level employee, akin to an apprenticeship, you are getting a benefit from the program. If you are mostly making copies and coffee, it's a different story. 
  • The intern does not take the place of regular employees, and works under the close supervision of staff. If the company lays off employees to replace them with "interns," that looks suspiciously like the company is trying to force people to work without pay. Similarly, if a company hires interns to supplement its regular work force during especially busy period, those interns are more likely employees. For your experience to be truly educational, you should be carefully supervised and trained. 
  • The employer receives no immediate advantage from the intern's work, and may find its operations impeded by the internship. For example, if you are just learning how to use design software, you may take longer, require much more supervision, and make more mistakes than a trained employee would. The point of an internship is that you are learning new skills. 
  • The intern is not necessarily entitled to a paid job offer at the end of the internship. If the training program is nothing more than a "trial period" for a regular job, the employer has to pay for that time. 
  • The intern and the employer both understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the work done during the internship. 


Jurisdictional relevance: US

Legal Consumer - Saint Charles, ILLaw. The content of this article pertains to all US states and counties.