How to Know When You Should Be Paid for an Internship

Internships have become a key way for individuals to develop career skills and learn about different occupations and industries. Whether for new graduates or professionals looking for a career change, internships are now recognized as a important career development tool. As a greater importance is placed on the internship and more people embrace them, including high school students, the number of organizations offering these opportunities has increased. 

If you are a job seeker searching for an internship, you should check and see that you’re properly compensated for the work. The U.S. Supreme Court has set guidelines for when internships should be unpaid and paid. These guidelines are intended to help interns avoid working for free. If your internship meets the all of the criteria below, then it can be unpaid. Otherwise, you should be compensated for your time.

A basic understanding of the law can be a great asset as you enter into discussions about a potential internship. If an internship doesn’t meet these criteria then you should be paid at least the minimum wage in your area. Housing, food and commuting stipends cannot take the place of this wage.

Here are the criteria for unpaid internships, as decided by the Supreme Court:

1. 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.

If you’re going to a company and receiving training on par with what you’d receive in a classroom, then a wage is not required. If you’re interning with a software company, and you spend your time with software engineers that train you and providing hands on feedback, then the internship can go unpaid.

2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.

Here the distinction is that the internship benefits you. If you receive training and experiences that you can take away from the internship, then it benefits you. If your internship is set up to benefit the company and its revenue in any way, then you need to be paid.

3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff. 

Your internship should have no impact on another worker’s job security. If an employee loses his or her job because of the work you’re doing during as an intern, then you should be paid for your work. If the tasks you are performing were performed by a paid employee in the past, you should be paid.

4. 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.

Just as No. 2 suggests, if your internship only benefits you and not the employer, then it’s OK for you to not receive wages for your work. However, if you’re working for a company and impacting its revenue and business, then you should be paid for your time at the company.

5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.

Traditionally an internship is a training exercise that ends at a predetermined time. However, the purpose of internships has changed. Some employers approach the internship as a way to test out possible employees and determine their fit for the company. If you enter an internship under the impression that after the predetermined time you will be given a job, then you need to be paid.

6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Whatever legal arrangement the employer sets entering the internship is what you should expect. If you are told you will be paid, the employer must pay you. Although you might not want to make trouble with your employer, you want to protect your interests and not work for free.

If you’re thinking of using an internship to move ahead in your career, talk with your employer and make sure that you are both on the same page in terms of salary. The majority of employers hire interns to contribute to the company in some capacity, however, some businesses will offer unpaid internships to benefit the community. If you are unsure where your internship lies, review the above criteria.