Unpaid internships aren’t always legal. Want to know the rule?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, an unpaid internship is only lawful in the context of an educational training program, when the interns do not perform productive work and the employer derives no benefit. “If the employer would have hired additional employees or required existing staff to work additional hours had the interns not performed the work, then the interns will be viewed as employees and entitled to compensation under the FLSA.”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s test is not new. It is based on the United States Supreme Court’s 1947 opinion in Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., 330 U.S. 148, 152-53 (1947), which held that the FLSA’s definition of “to employ” as “to suffer or permit to work” does not include student participation in an educational or vocational training program, so long as the employer derives no benefit from the trainees’ work. The Court cautioned against arrangements “in which an employer has evasively accepted the services of beginners at pay less than the legal minimum without having obtained permits from the [Secretary of Labor].”