Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Unpaid Internships: The Return

2014 saw an explosion in lawsuits surrounding the proper identification and payment of interns. In January 2014, Elite Model Management settled with former unpaid interns. Months later in October, NBC Universal closed a $6.4 million settlement with its unpaid interns. Then in November, Condé Nast settled with its former unpaid interns for $5.8 million. This lawsuit also resulted in Condé Nast terminating its unpaid internship program.

For some time, it was anticipated that the existence of unpaid internships would decline. Most of the lawsuits mentioned here revealed each employer’s inability to meet the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) six factor test for unpaid internships.

On January 8, 2018, however, the DOL announced adjustments, thereby updating the guidelines for “The Test for Unpaid Interns and Students.” The updated fact sheet explains that “Courts have used the ‘primary beneficiary test’ to determine whether an intern or student is, in fact an employee under the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act). In short, this test allows courts to examine the ‘economic reality’ of the intern-employer relationship to determine which party is the ‘primary beneficiary’ of the relationship.” A concern for many courts with the original test was determining whether “the employer doesn’t gain an immediate advantage from the intern’s activities.”

What are the new seven factors for determining a lawful unpaid internship? Do these adjustments make it easier for organizations to provide meaningful unpaid internships?

The Seven New Factors

  1. 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—and vice versa.
  2. 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.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4.  The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

With the inclusion of the possible academic credit / formal education tie in, the new test is more flexible than the previous one. Determination on whether an employee should be paid is now based on an overall view of the circumstances. This makes it possible for organizations to meet the standard. It is still suggested, however, that employers ensure the intent and design of their internship programs are primarily beneficial to the interns.

Reactions, of course, vary. For example, Eric Glatt was a plaintiff from a lawsuit involving his unpaid internship with Fox Searchlight. In a comment to Bloomberg Business online, Glatt mentioned that “I don’t like the legal implications of this new test…but the practical implications may make the kinds of internships I did [entry-level jobs disguised as educational opportunities] go away.” Some labor advocates worry that these new guidelines may permit an organization to justify any program as benefitting an intern. On the other hand, due to the wave of lawsuits in previous years the on-going trend has been for employers to be safe and pay minimum wage. We look forward to seeing how organizations and future interns utilize these new adjustments.

What about your organization? Have you hosted an unpaid internship program? Have such programs been discontinued in recent years? Share your thoughts in our comments section below!

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