Interns in the Art World: Legal Pitfalls and Pointers
March 3, 2009
Auction houses, museums, art galleries and other arts institutions are notorious for hiring young and bushy tailed interns for little to no remuneration. Given that many full time employees are not generously compensated, students can expect little for the privilege of walking the galleries and witnessing the magic of the art scene backstage.
Arts institutions are often hard-pressed to pay their interns, many relying on unpaid help, either as a function of the market forces or due to ever-shrinking budgets. Furthermore, the benefit received from unpaid internships interns is not one-sided and limited to the institution hiring interns. In the current economy, college students and recent graduates have to compete for jobs and demonstrate they have the necessary experience to have an edge in the hiring process. Thus students are often willing to work for free in exchange for the experience and the privilege of association with an established and recognized institution or business. However, as with anarchism, while anarchists may ignore authority, ignorantia juris non excusat, ignorance of the law does not excuse from liability for breaking it. Just because one side is willing to be abused and the other is happy to receive benefits, there is law protecting people from themselves and others from abusing those who cannot protect themselves.
Both for profit and not-for-profit institutions are bound to abide by state and federal laws. To facilitate the process, the U.S. Department of Labor summarizes relevant information for internship programs to make sure they are compliant with The Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 USCS § 201-219 (
This fact sheet provides general information to help determine whether interns must be paid the minimum wage and overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act for the services that they provide to “for-profit” private sector employers.
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines the term “employ” very broadly as including to “suffer or permit to work.” Covered and non-exempt individuals who are “suffered or permitted” to work must be compensated under the law for the services they perform for an employer. Internships in the “for-profit” private sector will most often be viewed as employment, unless the test described below relating to trainees is met. Interns in the “for-profit” private sector who qualify as employees rather than trainees typically must be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a workweek.*
The Test For Unpaid Interns
There are some circumstances under which individuals who participate in “for-profit” private sector internships or training programs may do so without compensation. The Supreme Court has held that the term “suffer or permit to work” cannot be interpreted so as to make a person whose work serves only his or her own interest an employee of another who provides aid or instruction. This may apply to interns who receive training for their own educational benefit if the training meets certain criteria. The determination of whether an internship or training program meets this exclusion depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each such program.
The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:
- The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
- The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
- The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
- 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;
- The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
- The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
If all of the factors listed above are met, an employment relationship does not exist under the FLSA, and the Act’s minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the intern. This exclusion from the definition of employment is necessarily quite narrow because the FLSA’s definition of “employ” is very broad. Some of the most commonly discussed factors for “for-profit” private sector internship programs are considered below.
Similar To An Education Environment And The Primary Beneficiary Of The Activity
In general, the more an internship program is structured around a classroom or academic experience as opposed to the employer’s actual operations, the more likely the internship will be viewed as an extension of the individual’s educational experience (this often occurs where a college or university exercises oversight over the internship program and provides educational credit). The more the internship provides the individual with skills that can be used in multiple employment settings, as opposed to skills particular to one employer’s operation, the more likely the intern would be viewed as receiving training. Under these circumstances the intern does not perform the routine work of the business on a regular and recurring basis, and the business is not dependent upon the work of the intern. On the other hand, if the interns are engaged in the operations of the employer or are performing productive work (for example, filing, performing other clerical work, or assisting customers), then the fact that they may be receiving some benefits in the form of a new skill or improved work habits will not exclude them from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements because the employer benefits from the interns’ work.
Displacement And Supervision Issues
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. If the employer would have hired additional employees or required existing staff to work additional hours had the interns not performed the work, then the interns will be viewed as employees and entitled compensation under the FLSA. Conversely, if the employer is providing job shadowing opportunities that allow an intern to learn certain functions under the close and constant supervision of regular employees, but the intern performs no or minimal work, the activity is more likely to be viewed as a bona fide education experience. On the other hand, if the intern receives the same level of supervision as the employer’s regular workforce, this would suggest an employment relationship, rather than training.
The internship should be of a fixed duration, established prior to the outset of the internship. Further, unpaid internships generally should not be used by the employer as a trial period for individuals seeking employment at the conclusion of the internship period. If an intern is placed with the employer for a trial period with the expectation that he or she will then be hired on a permanent basis, that individual generally would be considered an employee under the FLSA.
Source: Steven Greenhouse, “Judge Rules that Movie Studio Should have Been Paying Interns,” TNYT (Jun. 2013); Laura M. Holson, “In World of High-Glamour, Low-Pay Jobs, the Recession Has Its Bright Spots, TNYT (Feb. 2009); Department of Labor Website.