Are Unpaid Interns Employees Under the FLSA?

January 10, 2018 - Denny P. Major

On January 5, 2018, the United States Department of Labor announced that, going forward, it would utilize the “primary beneficiary” test for determining whether interns are employees under the FLSA, consistent with recent rulings from appellate courts.

Its updated Fact Sheet #71, a copy of which is linked here, explains the test, which examines “the ‘economic reality’ of the intern-employer relationship to determine which party is the ‘primary beneficiary of the relationship.” Fact Sheet #71 outlines 7 factors that courts should apply on a fact specific basis in making this determination, with no single factor being dispositive:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

This test replaces the older 6 factor test contained in Fact Sheet #71, which some courts had rejected as too rigid. While this guidance from the DOL is persuasive, rather than binding, authority, it should be noted that a version of the “primary beneficiary” test was already being applied by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, at least in the context of whether trainees constitute employees. The adoption of this test by the DOL provides additional support for the application of it by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and District Court for the District of South Carolina.  

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