248-409-1900 dburke@mi-worklaw.com

By:  La Toya Palmer – 3/6/14

Should we hire an intern?  I am sure if you posed the question to former President Bill Clinton; he would answer with a resounding “NOT!” Fortunately, for many students looking to gain experience in their chosen vocation, many employers would disagree with President Clinton and in fact, are gung ho to provide students with the industry experience they seek.  It appears to be a win – win: or maybe, not so much.

In the not so distant past, there was an onslaught of lawsuits filed in New York (likely because of its generous statute of limitations, which adds three more years to the Fair Labor and Standards Act (“FLSA”)three-year, look-back period) by unpaid interns, some of whom worked for the infamous Saturday Night Live show (“SNL”), claiming they were owed back wages for duties performed under the mistaken classification of “intern”.  As you can guess − for SNL, this was no laughing matter.  Maybe this isn’t an entirely true statement; the interns that sued for back wages ended up laughing all the way to the bank. The court in New York ruled in favor of the interns and ordered SNL to pay the “interns” for back wages.

This type of debacle can be easily avoided if we keep in mind the top ten things we learned from the Saturday Night Live Intern lawsuit, which are underscored by the FLSA:

  1. The structure of the internship should resemble a training program that is similar to a vocational school. —The SNL interns were learning things such as how to run an errand or how to get a pop-star from point A to point B, not exactly vocational school material.
  2. The training should be for the benefit of the intern, not the employer. —Hmmm, I don’t think SNL was aware of this one.
  3. Interns should not be used to displace regular employees.— It is alleged that SNL no longer hired entry-level employees, instead they utilized unpaid interns. Not a good idea.
  4. Interns should be closely supervised and not left to their own devices.- — Interns should be managed more closely than regular employees.
  5. The employer should derive no immediate advantage from the interns’ activities. The employer may even experience slower operations as a result of having interns. — Basically, the employer shouldn’t receive a sudden boon from hiring interns. The purpose of the internship is to ensure that the interns are receiving training in a field that they are interested in, not to provide extra help – free of charge – to the employer. As SNL found out, an internship mostly filled with administrative work, getting coffee, and running errands, simply can’t cut it.
  6. The interns can do “real tasks,” so long as they are closely supervised, learning, and the finished product is not something the employer needs.— I guess SNL  had a hard time convincing the court that the interns learned a lot from filing, running errands, and answering phones.
  7. All parties must acknowledge that no job is promised once the internship is completed.— The SNL interns alleged that they were told they were paying their dues and that a lot of the grunt work they were doing would eventually lead to jobs such as a production assistant, for example. No false promises of grandeur!
  8. All parties must agree that the interns are not entitled to be paid for the training. Many employers partner with schools to assist the students in obtaining course credit.
  9. Employers should think of internships as an internal training course they are providing to an intern. Thus, the program would require time and personnel to ensure that the interns are closely supervised and mentored.
  10. Minimize legal exposure by paying interns minimum wage, and always run the program by your legal representative.

Employers can play it safe by keeping in mind that internships are not a vehicle for providing free labor. If not properly vetted, what was thought to be an unpaid internship can be classified as a job that should pay wages. Thus, providing an internship to someone could cause the employer to suffer from unforeseen costly and major labor pains.  And as SNL discovered the hard way—that’s no joke.