By Douglas Weiner

The following sounds like a “win-win” situation, doesn’t it? An enthusiastic and energetic individual approaches you with a proposal to volunteer his or her time and services to gain valuable experience in your industry. “After all,” reasons the prospective volunteer, “how can I get my first job if I have no experience in the field of my choice?” Ambitious job seekers may approach an employer volunteering to work as an unpaid “trainee” or “intern” to gain skills, experience and contacts in their chosen field.

However, vigilant employers will not merely accept the prospective intern’s agreement to do volunteer work, but will apply the required legal analysis.  Despite the individual's offer to work for free, the Department of Labor may reclassify the individual as an employee, and require the employer to pay back wages for all hours worked, including overtime.     

An unpaid internship must be primarily for the benefit of the trainee, rather than the employer. Certain employers have established training programs for interns that do qualify for exclusion from the Fair Labor Standards Act. The criteria an employer must satisfy is set forth in Fact Sheet #71: The Test for Unpaid Interns  When all six criteria are met, an employment relationship does not exist under the FLSA, and the federal minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the individual. 

For employers considering an unpaid internship program for one or more individuals, we recommend certain policies, practices and procedures be implemented as precautionary measures.

  • Distinguish interns from employees. Create written policies devoted exclusively to the interns; avoid using the same policies and handbooks for both interns and employees.
  • Review handbooks to remove terminology from written policies that blurs the line distinguishing interns from employees (for example, written policies should not say that an intern is being “hired”, or refer to interns as “Associates” or “Summer Associates” .).
  • Require a signed written statement from the prospective intern evidencing the understanding that the intern has no expectation of wages, and the employer makes no guarantee of a job at the end of the internship.
  • Document expense reimbursements, if any, to specific expenses with receipts to evidence that there were bona fide expenses incurred by the intern that were, in fact, reimbursed. Without records the DOL may conclude the “expense reimbursements” were disguised wages.


Employers must carefully assess the benefits, and risks, of managing an unpaid internship. Unless an employer is able to establish that the criteria set forth in Fact Sheet #71 are met, the DOL is likely to find that an intern is an employee who must be paid minimum wage and overtime.

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