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How are unpaid interns’ rights protected?

Internships can play a fundamental role in shaping your career path. They offer a practical bridge between academic learning and real-world application. However, as interns are not automatically seen as employees, it raises the question of whether interns’ rights are protected, especially if they are classified as “unpaid interns.”

Unpaid internships must follow California labor laws to ensure employers do not take advantage of their interns. If you are taking on an unpaid internship to gain experience, it is crucial to assess whether the nature of the internship aligns with these legal requirements.

The primary beneficiary test

California uses the “primary beneficiary test” to decide if an intern is an employee eligible for wages. This test estimates who gains more with the setup. Is it the intern or the employer? If an intern gets significant useful learning from the internship and the employer doesn’t get big benefits right away, then the internship is more likely to follow the law correctly.

Training and educational nature

An unpaid intern should receive hands-on training and learning opportunities that contribute to their personal and professional growth. Their tasks should be related to their field of interest.

In addition, an intern should not displace a regular paid employee. Instead, the intern’s presence should add value by assisting with tasks that supplement their education and training.

The FLSA criteria

While California has stringent laws, unpaid internships must adhere to federal guidelines under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This includes factors like the intern’s awareness that:

  • They will not receive wage
  • The internship is not a path to employment

To safeguard both parties, it is advisable to have a written agreement. This agreement should outline the terms and conditions of the internship and plainly state that the internship is unpaid. It should also clarify the intern’s role and responsibilities and the expected duration of the internship.

Legal consequences

Failing to adhere to the legal criteria for unpaid internships can lead to legal consequences for employers. If an employer violates an intern’s rights, the intern may receive back wages and other remedies. Employers could also face fines and penalties for noncompliance.

If you are uncertain about the legal implications of an unpaid internship, it’s wise to consult with legal counsel for guidance tailored to your specific situation.


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