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When Does an Internship Stop Being an Internship?

Internships are an increasingly common way for young people, especially those looking to enter skilled professions, to get early experience before entering the workforce. As internships become more common, though, more employers look to interns as a way of getting unpaid labor from inexperienced young workers. Here are just a few of the ways an internship can turn into something more than the intern might have bargained for:

  1. No advice or supervision from existing staff
    • The purpose of an internship is to train the intern in professional skills they may need for future employment. To this end, an internship is typically meant to be done under the direct supervision of an existing member of the staff, who will check their work and advise them on how to improve what they are doing. An intern who is not properly supervised or who is not given guidance is not receiving the benefits they are supposed to, and may not be considered an intern if they ever pursue legal action against their employer.
  2. Promises of employment after the internship
    • Before the internship begins, both the intern and the employer are supposed to agree on the terms of the internship. This includes discussions about whether it will be paid or unpaid, and whether there will be a job waiting for them after the internship is completed. Dishonestly dangling the promise of employment in order to convince an intern to work, especially in the case of an unpaid internship, is not only disrespectful, it may be a violation of labor law.
  3. Intern is replacing a paid employee
    • There are far too many employers who consider interns to be reasonable replacements for employees who quit, are on vacation, or who took an extended leave of absence. However, interns are not employees, nor are they temporary workers or independent contractors. If an internship is used to replace an employee, that may be a legal violation.
  4. Intern works long hours
    • While there is no strict limit on how many hours an intern must work in their internship, generally speaking an intern is not supposed to work as long as a full-time employee does. This is especially true if their work is unpaid, and they are not compensated for expenses like food or travel. An intern who works long hours may not be considered an intern at all, but instead a full-time employee, if it ever comes before a court to decide the issue.
  5. Employer directly benefits from intern’s work
    • With only a handful of exceptions, an intern’s work is not supposed to be of direct benefit to their employer. For example, a newspaper should generally not be publishing an intern’s final copy in their paper without revision, editing or commentary. This would also be true for an advertising agency using an intern’s ad design by itself, or an accounting firm using interns to complete tax returns. If you are an intern and your employer is using your work in this way, you may need to speak to a lawyer knowledgeable in labor and employment law to explore your options.

If you have gotten into a legal dispute with your employer, it is important that you seek the guidance of an experienced New York employment lawyer who can protect your legal rights and advocate on your behalf. Steven Mitchell Sack, the Employee’s Lawyer, is a New York employment lawyer with more than 40 years’ experience handling the many aspects of employment law. To schedule an appointment with New York City employment lawyer Steven Mitchell Sack, call (917) 371-8000 or visit his contact page.

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