Employers skirting internship laws gain widespread attention

In recent months, media outlets have made reports about employers skirting the law when it comes to hiring free interns. Lawsuits have been filed against various companies for allegedly not providing adequate on-the-job experience for those who provide free labor-a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

A specific case in point involves an intern who worked this past summer for Donna Karan International, a maker of clothing and fashion accessories for men, women and children. The intern claims that his weekly job responsibilities did not meet the criteria for an internship under the law.

What exactly is an internship?

An internship is essentially a type of apprenticeship where employees learn valuable on-the-job skills in the field they wish to pursue. It's typically a win-win-situation for all parties involved-the employee gets valuable experience and the employer gets free labor.

However, any internship offering free labor must meet certain requirements in order to be legal under U.S. federal labor laws. The FLSA outlines these requirements.

The Fair Labor Standards Act internship criteria

Under the FLSA, an internship can be unpaid as long as the position, for instance, provides instruction similar to a course curriculum conducted in a classroom as well as offers a benefit to the intern.

Evaluating the case in point

The 25-year-old intern filed suit against Donna Karan seeking back pay because, he argues, that his internship did not meet this criterion under the FLSA.

He indicates that in 2009, he worked approximately 16 hours per week as an intern for the New York based Donna Karan location while pursuing his undergraduate degree. However, he argues that instead of obtaining valuable experience comparable to coursework curriculum-as stipulated under the FLSA-he wasn't given any experience. He says that his weekly job duties entailed fetching coffee and organizing closets full of clothing accessories.

The 25-year-old is also seeking class action certification for his lawsuit to link in other interns similarly situated to his position.

Similar cases

The Donna Karen intern isn't the first to file suit against his employer regarding questionable internship practices.

In June of this year, a former intern filed suit against Warner Music Group and Atlantic Records, claiming that his job duties failed to offer any on-the-job vocational experience. Former interns for Gawker Media also pursued a lawsuit for similar reasons.

Both plaintiffs are also pursuing class action certification.

Wakeup call for employers?

The legal battles regarding paid internships may be a wakeup call for employers simply looking to hire glorified assistants for free and hide under the legal veil allowing them to hire free labor.

In the wake of media reports of increased tuition rates and students competing in a tough economic market, students will push hard to gain valuable skills needed in the marketplace and be less tolerant of employers who may want to skirt the law.

Recent estimates indicate that over a million students obtain internships every year in the U.S.