In the realm of workplace ambiguities, the intern often occupies a special niche. What is he or she doing? Does it approximate the work that a "real" employee does? Is the focal point supposed to be about the intern accumulating valuable education and insights, or is an internship intended to benefit the employer on equal terms? And what about pay?
Essentially, there is often enough uncertainty regarding internships that they can lead to contract disputes with an employer. If an intern is receiving no pay yet gaining solid experience and, ultimately, an enhanced resume, that is one thing. What if the employer regards that unpaid intern as a standard employee, though, and works him or her as such, the primary motivation being the advantage to the employer and not the educational opportunities afforded the intern? Is that a problem?
Apparently, the Department of Labor ("DOL") considers it such. The Fair Labor Standards Act has a fact sheet on the DOL website stating that, in a for-profit corporate workplace, an intern must be paid at least minimum wage and overtime pay as appropriate unless certain conditions feature.
Those factors are spelled out on the website in a six-point test. They include these criteria: The environment must be predominantly educational and not focused on work for the employer's benefit (the FLSA language states that, "on occasion, [an employer's] operations may actually be impeded" by company interactions with the intern); an intern should not be considered as a regular employee; and there is no entitlement to job placement in the company when the internship has finished.
Internship considerations can be murky, and a prospective or currently placed intern with questions or concerns might reasonably consider contacting an experienced employment law attorney for advice.
Related Resource: philly.com "What's an internship worth?" July 6, 2010