On Friday, January 5, 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) adopted a revised view of what constitutes an “intern” for private sector employers. In short, this revised guidance makes it much easier for employers to take on unpaid interns without incurring substantial risk that the DOL will later find those supposed interns actually were employees who are entitled to back pay. Going forward, the DOL will use the “primary beneficiary” test, which was adopted by several appellate courts to determine whether interns are employees under the FLSA.
Prior to the January 2018 revision, the DOL took the position that internships in the “for profit” private sector most often constitute employment for which compensation is due under the Fair Labor Standards Act. A narrow exception existed if an employer could show that:
- The internship, even though it included 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 providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; on occasion the employer’s operations actually may 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.
Under this prior set of criteria, it was the employer’s burden to prove all six criteria existed for any supposed interns. And, if the employer was unable to do so, it subjected itself to potential significant back pay liabilities. The net result of the rule was that internships became nearly impossible to find in the for-profit private sector; as such, employers simply were not willing to subject themselves to potential liability in order to have internships available.
This has changed under the new rule. Under revised Fact Sheet #71 (which governs the rules that will be applied by the DOL in examining internship programs), the “primary beneficiary test” applied by many federal courts has been expressly adopted. Under the primary beneficiary test, the question is what the “economic reality” of the internship is so that a determination can be made about who enjoys the primary benefit of an internship. In making that determination, seven factors are considered:
- 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.
- 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.
- The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
- The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
- The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
- 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.
- 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.
This is a more flexible test, in which no one factor is determinative. Rather, the DOL and the courts will consider the facts and circumstances of each internship independently to determine whether it is a disguised employment relationship.
Importantly, the new test should not be interpreted to give employers carte blanche to classify all students working over a summer as interns. That is clearly not the intent, and doing so will likely result in significant liabilities to the overreaching employer. However, the new test clarifies substantially the factors that an employer must consider in making the decision about how to classify an intern and makes intern status much easier for employers to achieve.
In any event, we strongly recommend that any unpaid internship program be reviewed by counsel; they are not without risk. Of course, the risk can be avoided if the “interns” are paid at least the minimum wage, and IF they work overtime, they’re paid the required overtime premium.