Massachusetts Internships: The Law & Other Employment Considerations

A Ph.D student at Columbia University is suing for sexual harassment he claims he was subjected to by a male supervisor. And in a case with nationwide implications, The Poynter Institute reports 3,000 former Hearst interns may be eligible to join a class-action lawsuit, which seeks back wages on behalf of college students who worked unpaid internship at one of the company’s many publications, including Harper’s Bazaar.

As autumn classes are well under way on college campuses throughout New England, schools and employers should review their sexual harassment policies and update as necessary. Students should understand their rights, both in the classroom and in the workplace. Boston employment attorneys understand behavior that is legally and ethically out-of-bounds remains all too common in many workplaces. Students, interns and young employees may be especially susceptible. And universities and employers with weak, neglected or non-existent policies may be at unnecessary risk of a lawsuit or labor law violation.

The Columbia Spectator reports that soon after his arrival at the university last March, a Chilean student became the subject of harassment by his supervisor, a professor of medicine, nephrology and hypertension at the Medical Center. 1370555_lots_of_files_2.jpg

The 25-year-old student’s lawsuit claims he was ultimately fired after complaining to another supervisor, and to a representative of the university’s human resources department.

Internships can be an excellent partnership among Massachusetts businesses and the university community. Businesses throughout New England can benefit from partnering with the more than 100 colleges and universities in Massachusetts, including Amherst College, Boston College and Harvard University. Students can gain valuable professional experience and companies typically reap the rewards of having energetic and intelligent young staff members at a fraction of the cost of new hires. However, interns must hold positions that are largely educational in nature — hiring interns to perform only menial labor is a fast track to a labor violation.

And proper consideration must be given from a human resources standpoint. This may include common-sense measures like not permitting interns to drive as part of their job or not permitting them to travel alone with an adult staff member.

Additionally, there are specific state and federal rules when hiring interns. In general, employers are not allowed to use interns as a means of free or cheap labor. Since the beginning of the economic downturn, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division has stepped up enforcement against companies that use internships to violate minimum-wage laws.

“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” Nancy J. Leppink, of the wage and hour division, told The New York Times.

Federal law provides six criteria for unpaid internships:

  1. Training is similar to what would be obtained at a vocational or educational facility.
  2. Training is for the benefit of the trainee.
  3. Trainees are not necessarily hired for a job at the conclusion of the training.
  4. Regular employees are not displaced by work performed by trainees.
  5. Employer derives no immediate advantages from work performed by trainee; employer’s operations may even be impeded.
  6. Both trainee and employer understand trainee is not entitled to wages for time spent training.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports half of all college students hold internships. By some estimates, as many as half were unpaid through the economic downturn. Taking advantage of an internship program can have great advantages for your Massachusetts business. Obeying the law and instituting common-sense policies can prevent an internship from costing you dearly.

The Brown Law Firm, LLC, has offices in Belmont and Boston. For a free and confidential consultation, call 617-489-0817 or contact us online.

Additional Resources:

Judge Grants Class-Action Status in Hearst Unpaid Intern Case,
By Chad Bray, The Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2012.

EEOC Targets Workplace Discrimination, but Class Action May Not Be The Way to Go,
The Brown Law Firm, LLC, Sept. 12, 2012.

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