Q. Our company wants to establish an internship program and host student interns to work alongside our employees. Do we need to pay the interns?

A. Possibly. Over the past few years, courts and the Department of Labor (“DOL”) have carefully examined the relationship between businesses and unpaid student interns to determine whether students working at a company are more properly classified as unpaid interns or employees protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Under the FLSA, if an individual is deemed a non-exempt employee, that employee must be paid at least a minimum of $7.25 per hour and one and a half times their regular rate of pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 in a workweek. The minimum wage is higher in many states, including New York and New Jersey.

Previously, the Department of Labor required employers to meet a six-part test to prove that an individual was properly classified as an unpaid intern. One of the benchmarks employers were required to prove under the prior test was that the employer providing the internship opportunity “derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern . . . and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”

Citing four separate appellate court rulings that had rejected DOL’s six-part test, the DOL recently announced that it would use a more flexible “primary beneficiary” test in order to determine the “economic reality” of whether an individual is an intern or an employee. Going forward, the DOL will consider the following seven factors to determine whether an individual is an intern:

  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.

No single factor described above is determinative and DOL cautions that whether an individual is properly classified as an unpaid intern will depend on the unique facts of any particular case. Employers should also be aware that some states have their own test for determining whether an intern must be paid. For example, the New York Department of Labor lists eleven separate factors relevant to determining whether an unpaid intern should be considered an employee under New York law.

Before establishing an internship program or allowing a student to intern at a business, companies should examine the “economic reality” of their relationship with interns, review the new DOL Fact Sheet on interns, and consult with a qualified employment lawyer to ensure that the internship program complies with both federal and state wage and hour laws.