Making Certain That Your Station's Internship Program Complies With Federal Labor Laws

According to recent news reports, Clear Channel Media and Entertainment was sued by a former unpaid intern claiming that the company’s unpaid internship program was illegal and that she, and other former interns, were entitled to back wages. The Clear Channel suit is the latest in a series of similar lawsuits (several of which have been class actions) brought against media and entertainment companies. Because of the prevalence of the use of interns by broadcast stations, it is useful to review the six guidelines used by the Department of Labor (“DOL”) in deciding whether or not a company’s use of unpaid interns is consistent with the requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

  • The internship must be similar to training the individual would receive in an educational environment. The more an internship provides an individual with skills that can be used in multiple employment settings, as opposed to skills that are specific to a particular station, the more likely the internship will be considered to be educational.
  • The overall internship experience must be for the benefit of the intern rather than the employer.
  • The intern cannot take the place of regular employees, but must be closely supervised by existing staff members. As a consequence, an unpaid intern should not be performing routine work for a business – e.g., filing, data entry, or assisting customers – on a recurring basis.
  • The employer that provides the training should derive no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern. On occasion, an employer’s operations may actually be impeded; for example, the employer may have to devote additional time and resources to supervise and train the intern.
  • The intern should not automatically be assured of a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  • Both the employer and the intern must understand that the intern will not be paid. The receipt of school credit is permitted, as it follows the educational nature of the relationship and the training provided to the intern.

While all six of these factors are not accorded equal weight, where the position is unpaid, all of these elements must be met to qualify under the FLSA standards. For example, merely requiring an intern to obtain academic credit and participate in a class related to the internship is not sufficient. Overall, the internship must be structured to provide training or learning to the intern, as opposed to simply having the intern fulfill tasks that regular station employees could do for a salary. An internship program that does not satisfy all six of the guidelines should not be an unpaid position.

The DOL has stated that if an intern is performing productive work for a business, the fact that the intern is receiving benefits – such as learning new skills or improved work habits – will not be enough for the intern to be considered a trainee instead of an employee eligible for minimum wage and overtime. In contrast, if an intern shadows employees so the intern is able to learn certain functions under the close and constant supervision of regular employees, but the intern performs no (or minimal) work, the activity will more likely be considered an educational experience. An intern who attends sales meetings with clients, accompanies station staff to promotional events, observes production sessions, or participates in department meetings, would likely be considered a trainee who does not have to be paid, whereas an intern who is required to perform clerical work, run errands, or plan station events, would not satisfy the DOL guidelines.

Please contact any attorney in our office if you have questions regarding whether an internship program complies with the DOL guidelines.

Categories: Media