Are Unpaid Internships Legal In California?

Posted by Sessions & Kimball |

It’s fairly common for many companies to look for unpaid interns to help do some of the more menial tasks that need to be accomplished. The typical demographic of an intern is often a student who is looking for special skills while still in school. They are generally not worried about being paid because they are looking for valuable work experience that will be beneficial to them in the future. Lately, there has been a bit of a push to get rid of unpaid internships, as many people believe that free labor is unethical and unfair.

For many people, it’s simply not possible to do an unpaid internship because they have no choice but to work so they can put a roof over their heads and food on the table. This means that most unpaid internships go to wealthier students, which certainly can seem to be unfair. It allows them to get more experience and better jobs when they graduate. Regardless of people’s views on unpaid internships, state and federal laws dictate whether unpaid internships are legal.

Unpaid Internships in California

In California, unpaid internships are legal. In order to hire an unpaid intern in California, the employer is required to submit an outline of the proposed internship to the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE). Employers in California must meet two sets of standards in order to hire an unpaid intern: state law and federal law. According to California state law, the internship must meet the following criteria to be approved:

  1. The internship must take place as part of an educational program, requiring participation in school or something similar
  2. The intern is prohibited from receiving any employee benefits, including insurance and workers’ compensation insurance
  3. The intern must be trained to work in a specific industry
  4. When the employer is trying to find an intern, they must be transparent about the fact that it is going to be unpaid

The most important aspect of the available position is that the internship benefits the intern, not the employer.

Federal Law on Unpaid Internships

The Department of Labor outlines the federal laws that determine whether an unpaid internship is legal. According to federal internship laws, an employer must meet the following criteria:

  1. The intern is aware that they will not be receiving payment for their work
  2. The intern will perform duties that are similar to the training they would receive in an educational institution
  3. The internship is associated with the intern’s schooling or degree through integrated coursework
  4. The work that the intern performs must not interfere with any academic commitments or the academic calendar
  5. The internship only lasts while it’s beneficial to the intern in their education
  6. The intern does not displace other employees, and the work they do provides significant educational benefits
  7. There is no requirement that the intern has to be hired at the end of the internship.

If you are working as an unpaid intern and you believe the employer is violating state or federal law, it’s a good idea to contact an employment law attorney in Orange County as soon as possible and schedule a free consultation.