Q: Can we hire unpaid interns?
A: In 2018, the Department of Labor (DOL) adopted a new test for unpaid interns. Employers should use this test—called the primary beneficiary test—when determining if a worker can be properly classified as an unpaid intern or if they need to be classified as an employee and paid minimum wage and overtime. The test adopted by the DOL has already been in use in four federal appellate courts, most recently the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The DOL’s switch to the primary beneficiary test creates a nationwide standard.
Balancing v. All-or-Nothing
Previously, the DOL was using a six-question all-or-nothing test. An employer needed to be able to say “yes, the internship does that” to all six questions or else classify the worker as an employee. The new test is a balancing (or factors) test and has seven questions. No single question will disqualify the worker from being classified as an unpaid intern. Instead, the employer may look at the answers as a whole.
The New Questions
The new questions overlap significantly with the old questions. The major element missing from the new test is a focus on whether the intern is providing tangible benefit to the employer. The old test indicated that the employer should receive little to no benefit from the services of an unpaid intern, with the exception of goodwill and a qualified future applicant. The new test doesn’t ask if the employer is receiving a benefit.
In place of questions about whether the employer receives any benefits, the new test places more emphasis on the internship being academically focused. Only one of six questions in the old test asked about the training and educational aspects of the job, whereas four of seven do in the new test. Employers are free to look at factors outside of these seven, but should be careful about stretching to find new questions if these seven lead to an answer of “paid employee.”
Under the primary beneficiary test, employers should consider the following:
- The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee.
- The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
- The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
- The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
- The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
- The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
- The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.
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