Top 4 Ways to Get Back Pay for an Unpaid Internship
Internships are one of the best ways for students and job seekers to gain valuable experience and make connections with industry professionals. However, internships are subject to abuse by employers, and many unpaid internships may be illegal. If you've taken part in an internship and have not received wages, you should exam the nature of your work and determine whether or not you are owed wages. Huffington Post recently published an article by ProPublica that outlines four ways to get back pay for an unpaid internship. If you think you might have a case, study these options and decide what's best for you.
1. Know the Labor Department's guidelines.
The first, most important step in seeking payment for an unpaid internship is to know and understand the Labor Department's guidelines. Labor laws can be complicated, but useful resources like the Wage and Hour Division fact sheet will help. This sheet is a six-point guideline that the Labor Department uses to gauge whether or not an unpaid internship is illegal. It generally takes about two of the six points to be broken for the work to be considered illegal.
One of the most popular, legal methods employers use to provide unpaid internships is to state that the intern must be receiving academic credit. If the employer can demonstrate that credit is being earned and that the environment is primarily educational, then the unpaid nature is kosher. However, if the intern performs tasks such as clerical work or customer assistance, wages may be owed since the nature of the work provides an immediate advantage to the company.
It may seem like a lot of work, but proper preparation can help stave off big headaches and legal fees down the road. You don't have to become a labor law expert, but do your best to build a thorough understanding of labor laws before taking further steps.
2. File a complaint with the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division.
If you think you have a case, you may want to consider approaching the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division. You can file a complaint and the organization should send out an investigator to verify your claim. If the investigator does find your company to be in violation of the six-point guideline, then the Labor Department will tell your employer to pay you.
If you think filing a complaint is the right move to make, check out this page to find out how to contact the Labor Department. The simplest method is to dial 866-4US-WAGE. You'll be put in touch with a representative who will evaluate your case over the phone. If it sounds worth their time to investigate, they will then approach the company and determine whether or not wages are owed.
There are two very important things to consider with this option. First, the investigator may decide to launch a full investigation. In that case, they will evaluate more than just your claim and will evaluate whether or not the company has broken other laws regarding employment and wages.
Secondly, the Labor Department can't actually force your employer to pay you. They will most likely hold a meeting with all involved parties and explain why you are legally entitled to wages. If the company decides not to pay, your next course of action will be to file a lawsuit.
3. File a claim with your state labor agency.
Not all states have their own labor department, but if yours does they may work to your advantage. While most state labor agencies mirror the federal Labor Department, some have stricter rules about unpaid internships. For example, New York has taken a much harder stance on unpaid internships for government and academic institutions, two places that the federal government is usually more lenient with.
4. File a lawsuit.
If you're out of options, it might be time to file a lawsuit. While the process is time consuming and expensive, there is a precedent for these types of cases. So far, 14 out of 35 lawsuits regarding back wages for internships resulted in settlements or voluntary dismissals. While some courts have used the 6-part test from the Labor Department , some focus on the intern. If the intern is deemed to have been the primary beneficiary of their work, regardless of the working relationship, then the internship may be deemed legal.