Do Internships Require Compensation? Understanding Your Rights

Explore whether internships require compensation and how Waltman Employment Law can assist you with your employment rights in California.

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An internship is a temporary position where students or recent graduates gain practical experience in their field. These positions are vital for bridging the gap between academic learning and real-world application, enhancing career prospects. The issue of whether internships should be paid or unpaid is significant, as unpaid internships can sometimes violate labor laws if not properly structured.

At Waltman Employment Law, we are dedicated to cases where interns are not paid the wages they are rightfully owed or face retaliation in the workplace. If you believe you’re not being compensated according to legal standards, or if you’re experiencing unfair treatment after raising concerns about your internship conditions, we can help. Located in California, we ensure compliance with labor laws, specifically the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). We help protect interns’ rights, ensuring fair and lawful internship experiences.

Overview of Internships and Compensation

According to the FLSA, internships at “for-profit” companies must adhere to specific regulations to determine whether interns should be paid.

Interns are not automatically entitled to a wage under the FLSA. The key determinant is the “primary beneficiary test,” which assesses who benefits more from the internship—the intern or the employer. This test includes several factors:

  1. Both the intern and the employer must understand that there is no expectation of compensation unless otherwise stated, which would imply employment.
  2. The internship should provide training similar to an educational environment, including practical and hands-on training.
  3. It should be linked to the intern’s formal education through coursework or academic credit.
  4. The internship should align with the intern’s academic calendar to accommodate their educational commitments.
  5. The duration of the internship should be limited to the period during which the intern receives beneficial learning.
  6. The intern’s work should complement, rather than replace, the work of paid employees while offering significant educational benefits.
  7. There should be a clear understanding that the internship does not guarantee a paid job at the end.

This “primary beneficiary test” is flexible; no single factor determines the outcome. Each case is unique, and the overall “economic reality” of the intern-employer relationship is considered. If the intern is deemed an employee under these criteria, they are entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay. If not, they do not receive these wages.

Unpaid internships are generally permissible in public sector or non-profit charitable organizations, where interns volunteer without expectation of compensation for humanitarian, civic, or charitable purposes.

Overall, while internships can offer invaluable professional experience and entry into a career, it’s crucial for both interns and employers to understand these guidelines to ensure compliance with labor laws.

Federal and California Laws on Internships

Understanding the nuances of internship compensation is crucial for both employers and interns, particularly when comparing Federal and California policies. The Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) offer frameworks intended to balance the educational benefits of internships with fair labor practices. While both aim to ensure internships serve primarily as educational experiences and protect interns from discrimination, their approaches differ in significant ways, highlighting the importance of recognizing and navigating these distinctions effectively.

Federal Policy (FLSA):

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), for-profit employers must pay employees for their work unless the intern is the “primary beneficiary” of the relationship. The “primary beneficiary test” involves seven factors, including the educational nature of the training, the connection to academic credit, and the understanding that the internship is unpaid. Unpaid internships must primarily benefit the intern and provide training similar to an educational environment.

California Policy (DFEH):

The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) focuses on educational and experiential opportunities for student interns. Unpaid interns in California have the same legal rights as state employees regarding protection against discrimination and harassment but do not have the same rights concerning unemployment compensation or termination procedures. Workers’ compensation coverage is optional for unpaid interns. Interns are considered volunteers and must not displace regular employees or perform tasks that would otherwise be done by paid staff.


Both policies emphasize that internships must primarily benefit the intern. Both protect unpaid interns from discrimination and harassment. Both allow for unpaid internships if they are educational and primarily for the intern’s benefit.


The FLSA uses a specific “primary beneficiary test” to determine if an internship can be unpaid. California’s DFEH policy provides more detailed guidance on the intern’s role, supervision, and the prohibition of interns displacing regular employees. California explicitly allows for voluntary workers’ compensation coverage for unpaid interns. These differences reflect the federal focus on compliance with minimum wage laws and the California emphasis on broader employment rights and protections.

Do You Need Legal Assistance?

While Federal and California policies on internship compensation both prioritize the educational over the economic value of internships, their specific stipulations differ, reflecting broader legislative priorities. If you believe your internship experience may not be adhering to these legal standards, or if you feel you’re not being fairly compensated, Waltman Employment Law is here to help. Our experienced attorneys can provide guidance and support to ensure your rights are protected. Contact us today to discuss your situation and explore your options.

Identifying Lawful vs. Unlawful Internships

Understanding the delicate balance between lawful and unlawful internships is essential for both interns and employers. Legally, unpaid internships in “for-profit” settings must primarily benefit the intern rather than the business, focusing on educational benefits and not replacing paid employees.

Signs of Lawful Unpaid Internships:

Educational Focus

The internship should function as an extension of the intern’s education, providing skills and training similar to those offered in academic settings.

Mentorship Provided

Interns should receive consistent guidance and mentorship, engaging in tasks that complement the learning experience without displacing paid employees.

Integration with Education

The internship should be tied to the intern’s formal education through integrated coursework or the earning of academic credit and should accommodate the academic calendar.

Duration and Benefit

The duration of the internship should be limited to the period during which the intern receives beneficial learning, and there should be no expectation of a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

Common Violations and Misclassifications:

Companies sometimes incorrectly classify entry-level employees as unpaid interns, which can lead to legal issues if the internship lacks the educational structure or mentorship required by law. Misclassifications not only undermine fair labor practices but can also lead to interns performing work that should be compensated.

If you believe your internship may not be meeting these legal standards, or if you are experiencing unfair treatment as an intern, it is important to seek professional advice. Legal professionals skilled in employment law can offer guidance, ensuring both interns and employers uphold their rights and responsibilities under the FLSA.

Reach out to Waltman Employment Law for Further Guidance

Internship programs must follow specific legal requirements, and not following these could lead to serious consequences. That’s where Waltman Employment Law comes in. We focus on making sure you understand your rights and responsibilities.

Whether you’re entitled to wages or overtime pay can vary, and this depends on several factors. Talking to us can provide the personalized advice you need to understand these tricky rules. California’s laws on internships might be stricter because the state is proactive about labor rights.

Reach out to Waltman Employment Law for:

  • A thorough understanding of internship laws in California.
  • Professional advice on how the Fair Labor Standards Act applies to your specific situation.
  • A free initial consultation to evaluate your situation and suggest the next steps.

We aim to equip you with the knowledge to handle these issues, offering services that are thorough and respectful of your professional concerns. Why stay unsure? Contact us to ensure that your internship program meets legal standards and creates a fair, productive, and educational work environment.