Are Unpaid Internships Legal in California?

Are Unpaid Internships Legal in California

Are unpaid internships legal in California? The short answer is yes, but there are strict requirements and guidelines that employers must follow to have a legally compliant unpaid internship program. This article explores the nuances of unpaid internships in the Golden State, outlining the requirements, protections, and practical tips for both interns and employers.

Unpaid internships are a common way for students and recent graduates to gain valuable work experience, build their resumes, and make connections in their desired fields. However, the legality of these arrangements has been a topic of debate, with concerns around potential exploitation and the lines between an internship and regular employment. In California, the rules around unpaid internships are particularly nuanced, requiring employers to carefully navigate state and federal regulations.

Federal Guidelines for Unpaid Internships

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Labor has established a set of guidelines known as the “Primary Beneficiary Test” to determine whether an internship can be legally classified as unpaid. This flexible test looks at seven key factors to assess whether the intern or the employer is the primary beneficiary of the arrangement:

  1. The intern’s awareness that the position is unpaid: The intern must clearly understand that the internship will not involve any compensation.
  2. The similarity of the training to an educational environment: The internship should provide training similar to what the intern would receive in an educational setting.
  3. The integration of the internship with the intern’s academic commitments: The internship must be tied to the intern’s formal education program, such as receiving academic credit.
  4. The accommodation of the intern’s academic calendar: The internship should be structured to work around the intern’s academic schedule and commitments.
  5. The duration of the internship: The internship should only last as long as necessary to provide the intended educational benefits.
  6. The displacement of regular employees: The intern’s work should not replace the duties of regular paid employees.
  7. The understanding of the intern’s entitlement to a job: The intern must understand that the internship does not guarantee future employment with the organization.

If the internship arrangement satisfies these criteria, then the intern is considered the primary beneficiary, and the employer is not required to pay minimum wage or overtime. However, if the employer is deemed the primary beneficiary, then the intern must be classified as an employee and compensated accordingly.

California’s Specific Requirements for Unpaid Internships

In addition to the federal guidelines, California has its own set of rules and regulations governing unpaid internships. Employers in the state must obtain approval from the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) before establishing an unpaid internship program.

To gain DLSE approval, the employer must demonstrate that the internship:

  1. Is part of an educational program: The internship must be tied to the intern’s coursework or degree program, either through a formal agreement with an educational institution or as a requirement for graduation.
  2. Does not provide employee benefits: Interns are not entitled to any employee benefits, such as health insurance or workers’ compensation coverage.
  3. Provides training in a specific industry: The internship must offer training or work experience in a particular industry or field.
  4. Is transparent about the lack of pay: The employer must be upfront with the intern about the unpaid nature of the internship.

If the DLSE determines that the proposed internship does not meet these criteria, the employer must treat the intern as a regular employee and provide at least minimum wage and other applicable protections.

Protections for Unpaid Interns in California

Despite the legal requirements for unpaid internships, some employers may still attempt to exploit interns by misclassifying them or failing to provide the necessary educational benefits. Fortunately, interns in California have several legal protections they can utilize if they believe their rights have been violated.

Interns who believe they have been misclassified as unpaid workers when they should have been considered employees can file a worker misclassification claim. If successful, this claim can result in the recovery of unpaid wages, benefits, and even attorneys’ fees. Additionally, interns may be entitled to compensation for missed meal or rest breaks, as well as any unpaid overtime.

It’s important to note that pursuing legal action can be a delicate decision, as it may potentially jeopardize the intern’s relationship with the employer and future job prospects. However, California’s employment laws are designed to protect interns and ensure that unpaid internships are truly beneficial for the intern’s educational and career development.

Navigating Unpaid Internships in California

For both interns and employers, navigating the legal requirements for unpaid internships in California can be a complex and challenging process. Clear communication and a shared understanding of the internship’s purpose and structure are essential to ensuring compliance and a positive experience for all involved.

For interns, it’s crucial to thoroughly understand the internship’s terms and conditions before accepting the position. Carefully review any written agreements or contracts to ensure that the internship aligns with the legal requirements, such as being tied to your academic program, providing meaningful training, and not displacing regular employees. If you have any concerns or feel that your rights are being violated, don’t hesitate to seek guidance from an experienced employment law attorney.

For employers, the key is to proactively establish a compliant unpaid internship program from the outset. This includes obtaining DLSE approval, clearly communicating the internship’s terms and expectations, and closely monitoring the intern’s activities to ensure they are receiving the intended educational benefits. Employers should also be mindful of the potential financial and reputational consequences of misclassifying interns as unpaid workers.

By working together and adhering to the legal requirements, both interns and employers can create mutually beneficial unpaid internship arrangements that provide valuable learning opportunities while respecting the rights and protections afforded by California law.


In conclusion, unpaid internships are legal in California, but only if they meet strict federal and state-level requirements. Employers must carefully navigate the guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of Labor and the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement to ensure their internship programs are compliant.

Interns, on the other hand, have important legal protections and the ability to pursue legal action if they believe their rights have been violated. By understanding the legal landscape and communicating openly, both interns and employers can foster meaningful, educational, and legally sound internship experiences.

Ultimately, the legality of unpaid internships in California comes down to a delicate balance between providing valuable work experience and upholding the rights and protections of the intern. By staying informed and diligently following the rules, everyone can benefit from the unique opportunities that well-structured unpaid internships can offer.

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