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Everything You’ve Been Told About Paying Interns May Now Be Wrong

Interns are a perennial part of the media landscape, and you have probably heard a lot over the last few years on the subject of unpaid interns. Specifically, that unless they qualify as genuine interns under a six-part Department of Labor (DOL) test, businesses are required to treat them (and therefore pay them) as employees.

The resurgence in interest in the subject came in early 2010 when the Department of Labor began stepping up enforcement against for-profit businesses illegally using unpaid interns. In April of 2010, the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division released a Fact Sheet providing guidance on when an individual can be classified as a trainee or intern exempt from the Fair Labor Standard Act’s requirement that employees be paid at least the federal minimum wage and receive overtime pay. The Fact Sheet dutifully laid out the six-part test that the DOL adopted in the 1960s, noting that “[i]nternships in the ‘for-profit’ private sector will most often be viewed as employment” unless all six of the criteria are met. The six criteria are:

  • the internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  • the internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  • the intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  • the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  • the intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  • the employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

From the DOL’s perspective, if an employer can’t demonstrate that all six factors are met, that intern is an employee, and the employer is liable for unpaid wages.

However, if you operate in New York, Connecticut, or Vermont, the rules have now changed, and if you operate in one of the other 47 states, change may be on the way. In a case launched by unpaid interns that worked on the film Black Swan, the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit last week rejected the DOL’s test as too rigid. In doing so, the Second Circuit overturned a lower court’s certification of class actions on behalf of the unpaid interns, finding that the question of employment status is a “highly individualized inquiry” poorly suited to a class or collective action.

As discussed in much more detail in a Pillsbury Client Alert from our own Julia Judish and Osama Hamdy, the Second Circuit chose instead to adopt a “Primary Beneficiary” test, which “focuses on what the intern receives in exchange for his work” and “also accords courts the flexibility to examine the economic reality as it exists between the intern and the employer.” Simple, right?

Business owners might justifiably complain that the court replaced a complicated six-part subjective test with a simpler but even more subjective test. However, the Pillsbury Client Alert lays out a number of considerations suggested by the court for determining whether an intern is the primary beneficiary of the relationship with the employer, including an increased focus on the connection between the internship and the intern’s academic course of study.  The court wrote that

[b]y focusing on the educational aspects of the internship, our approach better reflects the role of internships in today’s economy than the DOL factors, which were derived from a 68‐year old Supreme Court decision that dealt with a single training course offered to prospective railroad brakemen.

While a number of the considerations suggested by the Second Circuit are similar to those in the DOL test, the difference is that the court’s test provides the flexibility to look at other factors that might be relevant to answering the question, and unlike the DOL test, does not consider the absence of any one factor to be determinative of an intern’s status under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Rather than listing the court’s suggestions for factors that might (in addition to others) be considered, let me suggest you take a look at the Client Alert. It not only outlines those factors, but suggests a number of steps businesses can take to clarify their relationship with unpaid interns, whether they are subject to the DOL or the Second Circuit criteria.

The good news for employers is that the Second Circuit’s test (which for the moment only applies in the Second Circuit’s jurisdiction of NY, CT, and VT) allows a business to present any information relevant to demonstrating that the unpaid intern is not an employee. The bad news is that the unpaid intern has that same flexibility in seeking to prove he or she is really an employee that needs to be paid.  In addition, employers in these states face an increased risk of misclassification claims for internships not connected with an academic program.  Making sure your business has done all it can to end up on the right side of that analysis is your next challenge.