Workers’ Compensation Rights as an Unpaid Intern

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Internships have been around since the early 1900’s. Based on centuries old apprentice programs, internships began in career fields where some education and training was required but either there were no colleges or vocational schools nearby or the cost was too great. Plus at the turn of the century, many professions, which today require state or federal licensing, were much less stringent in their training requirements due to necessity.

White collar internships lost popularity during the war years and then enjoyed a revival starting in the 1970’s when more women were graduating from college and working to get their foot inside the corporate revolving door.
In the 1980’s the business world began to recognize offering young talent internships either during their last year of college or right after graduating, gave the company access to energetic, almost free temporary workers, who in most cases after the internship ended, were assured of a permanent paid position. Generally during this period the majority of interns were allotted a small stipend in lieu of a regular paycheck. Often the amount worked out to less than the federally mandated minimum wage with the intern being responsible for all federal and state taxes.
After the recession of 2007/2008 when almost eight million jobs were lost many people, especially recent college graduates, were so desperate to get a foothold in the corporate world, they were willing to take unpaid intern positions. As more companies took advantage of this free labor, controversy followed with tales of interns being made to work unrealistic hours or given dangerous or inappropriate tasks. Then to add insult to injury, many were never offered a salaried position with the company.
Today there are still many interns who are underpaid or unpaid and very rarely are benefits ever provided. Even in firms that meet new federal mandates on providing their employees with health insurance, interns are exempt. The traditional remaining benefits including vacation, personal time off and sick pay are voluntary and never a consideration in an intern position.
But what if an unpaid intern is injured on the job? Are they afforded the same workers’ compensation benefits as an employee that receives a weekly paycheck? The Department of Labor has created guidelines in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act that state if an intern is not financially compensated then they are not technically an employee. Therefore, does that mean they aren’t covered under workers’ compensation?
The general rule of thumb has become, if an unpaid intern is “under the control of the employer,” such as being required to work specific hours, then in the case of a workplace injury, the intern would be covered. In the case of a workplace accident since the injured party is generally treated by a physician and/or medical facility of the employer’s choosing, billing should already be set up to go directly to the company’s human resources or insurance department. If due to the severity of the accident or through miscommunication, the bills are sent to the injured intern, they need to speak with their supervisor to determine the most efficient way of turning these bills over to the correct department. The intern needs to be diligent in making sure unpaid medical bills are not allowed to affect their credit rating.
As an unpaid intern, loss of wages isn’t an issue since no compensation is provided. But if the workplace accident has caused the person to become permanently disabled, disfigured or if the injury resulted in the intern’s death, then it is important to reach out to Dan Pruitt Law Firm immediately. There are numerous legal options that can be discussed in order to ensure proper compensation is provided.

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