The Fair Labor Standards Act says unpaid internships are only permissible under certain conditions. For example, hiring an intern and providing an experience that is mostly educational is allowed. Using that unpaid intern to do work in lieu of hiring an actual employee is not.
The labor rules aim to protect the rights of eager interns who’ll do whatever it takes to get work experience–as well as to keep employers from farming out free work that should be given to a paid employee.
Of course, employers don’t always actually follow the rules, provoking controversy, disgruntled stories, and even a string of lawsuits filed by former interns claiming to have worked under unlawful circumstances.
If you’re in an unpaid internship, here’s a simplified flowchart to gauge whether your internship is likely breaking the rules (a.k.a. by the Labor Department’s standards, you’re getting stiffed and deserve some pay), or is probably right in line.
Head here for the Labor Department’s complete set of unpaid internship rules.