A Quick Primer on The Federal Rules for an Unpaid Internship

As we approach fall and winter, it is time to begin considering the 2014 harvest and your operation.  Some readers of this blog use internships during the season to assist the farm whereas other readers of this blog may be interns themselves.  What do you need to know?

The United States Department of Labor has a set of rules regarding whether there is an internship or employment.  All of the following must be met to exempt an  individual from federal minimum wage and overtime law (e.g. be classified as an intern):

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in an education environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under the close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in internship.

Note that the above applies only to for-profit enterprises; it does not apply to non-profit and governmental entities.

The question becomes: can an unpaid internship on a farm operation qualify as an internship under the rules above?  The answer is most likely no.  An unpaid internship likely displaces regular employees and the farm would derive immediate benefit from the internship.  As the Department of Labor explains:

If an employer uses interns as substitutes for regular workers or to augment its existing workforce during specific time periods, these interns should be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a workweek.

There also isn’t much of an argument that, for example, your intern is in the fields harvesting fruits and vegetables or maintaining your irrigation system, the farming operation is deriving immediate benefits from the intern.

If you are considering unpaid internships, or are considering applying for an unpaid internship, keep the above rules in mind.  If you have questions, you can contact your local U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division.

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