By: Susan L. Swatski, Esq. (email@example.com) and Bryan A. Coe, Summer Associate (firstname.lastname@example.org)
An unpaid internship can be beneficial to both interns and employers. Interns can gain valuable experience in their field while employers can help educate people who one day may work for their companies. However, confusion exists as to what type of experience must be provided to an intern for the experience to replace a paycheck. By providing an unpaid internship instead of a paid position, employers put themselves at risk of legal action, which can result in fines and back pay to the intern. A recent decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit provides employers with much needed guidance to craft their internship programs.
In most states, employers must conform to the United States Department of Labor’s Intern Fact Sheet when deciding if an internship qualifies to be unpaid. The DOL’s requirements are: (1) the internship should be similar to training that would be provided in school; (2) the experience should be for the student’s benefit; (3) the intern should not be a replacement for a regular employee, but instead, should be under the supervision of a regular employee; (4) the employer must provide training and not derive an immediate advantage from the intern’s activities; (5) the intern is not entitled to a job at the end of the internship; and (6) both the employer and the intern have an agreement that the intern will not receive payment for work performed. According to the Department of Labor, all six items must be present for an internship to qualify as unpaid.
In Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit determined that the proper question to ask is whether the intern or the employer is the “primary beneficiary” from the relationship. The Court of Appeals replaced the Department of Labor’s six factor Intern Fact Sheet with the following seven non-exhaustive factors to aid in answering whether an internship can be unpaid: (1) the extent to which the intern and the employer 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; and, (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. When deciding if a person should be classified as an employee, employers should balance these factors. No one factor is dispositive to conclude the intern should be not considered an employee.
A second important point to be taken away from the Glatt ruling is that interns will find it much harder to certify a class to bring their claims, because although the primary beneficiary test may be partially answered using generalized proof, the more substantial questions require individualized proofs to very fact specific inquiries.
Employers should be aware of the Second Circuit’s break from the DOL’s Intern Fact Sheet and account for the distinctions between the “primary beneficiary test” and the Fact Sheet when creating an internship program. As a general matter, when creating an internship program, employers should focus on the educational component. Programs such as guest speakers and information sessions can help tip the scale towards the internship being more beneficial to the employee. The greater the amount of educational opportunities that are present, the more likely a court will find an intern to be the “primary beneficiary” of the relationship.
Currently, only employers who are located in New York, Connecticut and Vermont are affected by this ruling. However, employers in other states should be aware of this ruling because it shows a change in thinking regarding unpaid internships. If your company offers an unpaid internship, you should have it reviewed by skilled employment law counsel to ensure the program complies with the law in your jurisdiction.