Unpaid Internships in Ohio

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Unpaid internships are a common way for students to gain work experience, learn about their prospective career choice, and gain school credit. However, there are certain requirements that must be met under Ohio and federal law in order for an employer to lawfully consider you an unpaid intern. Unless these specific criteria are met, you would be considered an employee — and your employer would be required to comply with the applicable wage and hour laws.

What is an Internship?

An internship is a type of work experience that involves structured learning and takes place for a limited duration of time. The purpose of an internship is to benefit the intern and provide them with experience in their chosen career field. Many internships are unpaid and offer academic credit rather than wages. However, not all internships can legally be unpaid — it’s essential for employers to ensure they are compliant with the law and both parties understand that the internship will not be compensated.

Although many internships take place in the summer or during academic breaks throughout the school year, they are not the same as paid temporary jobs or seasonal work. Generally, temporary jobs are subject to wage and hour laws — and they don’t provide any other benefits to the employee beyond what is inherent in a typical employment relationship. While internships are an opportunity to obtain professional experience doing regular work in a particular field, they are also distinguishable from fellowships, which primarily involve academic research and professional development.

Are Unpaid Internships Legal in Ohio?

Unpaid internships are not illegal, as long as they do not violate the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division applies a seven-factor test to determine whether a trainee, apprentice, intern, or extern is an employee. Under the “primary beneficiary test,” courts examine the “economic reality” of the relationship between the employer and employee to determine which party is the “primary beneficiary” of the relationship. If the employer is the primary beneficiary, the intern is considered an employee and is entitled to the protections of the FLSA.

Specifically, the factors that guide courts in determining whether an unpaid intern should be classified as an employee are as follows:

  1. The extent to which the intern and employer clearly understand there is no expectation of compensation.
  2. The extent to which training provided to the unpaid intern is similar to that which would be given at a vocational school or academic institution.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal academic program through integrated coursework or the receipt of credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s school commitments by corresponding with the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the duration of the internship is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the work conducted by the intern complements (rather than displaces) the work carried out by paid employees, while providing them with significant educational benefits.
  7. The extent to which the employer and interns understand that the intern is not entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.

The above seven-part test is flexible, and no single factor is dispositive of whether an intern is actually an employee. Rather, the outcome will depend upon the unique circumstances of each case. But it should be noted that any promise of compensation — even if it just implied — will suggest that the intern is an employee. In most internships where the work is part of an academic program, the above factors are met, and an employer-employee relationship does not exist.

Do Unpaid Interns Have Overtime Hour Rights?

Paid interns have wage and hour protections, while participants in unpaid internships do not. For instance, if you are an unpaid intern who is working long hours, the overtime laws do not apply — and the employer may ask you to work long hours. In contrast, a paid intern would be subject to the applicable overtime laws and their employer could be penalized for noncompliance. Unpaid interns are also not entitled to minimum wage or unemployment benefits upon separation.

Contact an Experienced Ohio Employment Law Attorney

The laws regarding unpaid internships can be complex. If you are an unpaid intern who believes you should have been classified as an employee, it’s crucial to have a knowledgeable attorney by your side who can best advise you regarding your legal rights and recourse. Located in Westlake and providing trusted representation to clients throughout Ohio, employment law attorney Chris Lalak is committed to fighting for the rights of workers. Contact Lalak LLC today to schedule a free, confidential, no-obligation consultation and learn how we can assist you.