The Scoop on Unpaid Internships

Posted on by Polk Newsroom

Still reeling from the #BlackSwanunpaidinternshiplawsuit backlash on unpaid internships? … Um, don’t know what I’m talking about? Well, in a nutshell, some interns worked for Fox Searchlight Pictures for about three years during the production of the 2010 film The Black Swan, and although they were promised the opportunity to work within their career field, they were basically working as low-level assistants who never got a piece of the big-film industry action and … they were not paid. They were not happy about that. They sued. They won.

Following that outcome, unpaid interns have sued and won several lawsuits for performing tasks that benefitted for-profit businesses but may not have benefitted their careers in any meaningful way. It all seemed very confusing and many headlines read, “the end of unpaid internships.”

Why should you care? 

As a result, many businesses that traditionally offered unpaid internships as a source of direct industry experience have shied away from taking interns. That means: not as many internship opportunities, greater competition for paid internships, and no place for students without experience to start.

Another byproduct of this is interns themselves have begun to “require” they be paid, even though they may not have much to offer in terms of skills or experience yet. And so the cycle begins: no money = no internship; no internship = no experience; no experience = no job; no job = no money.

This is not necessarily the end of unpaid internships, but there are some important guidelines to follow:

  1. Internships are governed under the Department of Labor Fair Labor Standards Act (DOL-FLSA). There are seven criteria that must be met for an internship to be unpaid.
  2. If an internship placement is with a not-for-profit organization (such as United Way), an internship may be unpaid.
  3. Unpaid internships must offer the intern meaningful career-related experience, supervision, and a schedule that equates with part-time and lasts only the length of a semester.
  4. An unpaid internship may not displace an employee or take the place of what would be a job for an employee.
  5. If the internship is with a for-profit business, and the intern is producing “live work” that benefits the business, the business needs to pay the intern.
  6. For-profit businesses may require that the student earn college course credit for the internship as a “work around” on the pay issue; however, course credit may not be available for what the internship is offering or for the program/degree the student is pursuing.
  7. The unpaid internship in a for-profit business must offer a significant “training” component, and not simply require “work” of the intern.

So, sure, all interns want to be paid, but there are excellent reasons to consider an unpaid internship: experience, prestige, networking, resume-building, recommendations, and more! Just be sure to work with us to assure that the internship meets the legal guidelines and that you’re in good hands while on the job!

For more information on internships, contact Lynn Chisholm at, or visit us at and