Yes, unpaid internships are legal in Tennessee – but only if employers follow certain rules. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), unpaid interns must be the “primary beneficiary” of the professional relationship.
The Primary Beneficiary Test
To be the primary beneficiary of a working relationship, interns must:
- Understand that there is no expectation of compensation
- Receive training that is similar to the training they would receive in an educational environment
- Integrate their coursework into their internships and/or receive academic credit
- Have a schedule that accommodates their academic commitments and academic calendar
- Work for a limited duration (interns may only work as long as they receive beneficial learning)
- Complement (rather than displace) the work of paid employees
- Understand that they are not entitled to a paid job at the end of the internship
If internships do not pass the “primary beneficiary test” outlined above, employers must pay their interns a minimum wage. Otherwise, the internship is exploitative and illegal.
What If My Unpaid Internship Does Not Pass the Primary Beneficiary Test?
If your internship does not pass the primary beneficiary test, you are an employee and entitled to both minimum wage and overtime pay under the FLSA. If you have been working for a while, you are entitled to back pay – or retroactive wages for the hours you worked.
To receive back pay, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division or file a private suit for back pay plus attorney’s fees and court costs. Generally, you have 2 years to recover back pay.
How Do I Get Started?
Being classified as an unpaid intern when you are actually an employee is a wage and hour issue. You can get started by filing a complaint with the Wage and Hour Division and/or discussing your case with an attorney.
Keep in mind that if the Wage and Hour Division or the Secretary of Labor helps you or brings a suit on your behalf, you cannot bring a private suit against your employer.
To have more control of their cases, many misclassified interns prefer to file private suits with attorneys they choose themselves.
At Donati Law, PLLC, we have been helping employees recover unpaid wages for more than 35 years. We are committed to creating a community that is free from exploitation, and our firm’s mission is to improve lives.
Your early professional experiences should not be exercises in exploitation. As an intern, you have the same rights as other employees, including the right to be paid fairly if you are not the primary beneficiary of the working relationship.
If you are concerned that your employer is taking advantage of your position as an unpaid intern, please discuss your case with our caring and compassionate team.
Learn more about your rights and legal options by calling us at (901) 209-5500 or contacting us online today.