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4 Ways You Can Seek Back Pay for an Unpaid Internship

Think you’re entitled to be paid for your unpaid internship? Here are resources you should know about.

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At ProPublica, we've heard from a lot of unpaid interns. You've told us about walking your boss's dog, fact-checking for magazines and even doing the same work as federal prosecutors — all for little or no pay.

If you think you might be entitled to minimum wage for your work, you have legal options. Here are a few resources you should know about.

Let's start with the obvious — you can appeal to your employer directly for wages. If you go that route, know the U.S. Department of Labor's rules. The Labor Department says if you are interning at a for-profit company, your employer needs to pay you at least minimum wage if any of these things are true:

Know the Labor Department's Guidelines

Are you interning for academic credit? That doesn't necessarily make unpaid internships legal. The guidelines say if a college provides credit and oversight, an unpaid internship is more likely to be okay because it's closer to an "educational environment." But if you are, for example, "filing, performing other clerical work, or assisting customers" without pay, then the arrangement may be illegal, even if you are receiving credit, because that work provides an "immediate advantage" to your employer.

As a result, the Labor Department has cited intern employers with minimum wage violations even when the unpaid interns were receiving college credit. Check the Labor Department's fact sheet (PDF) for a full explanation of its guidelines.

You Can File a Complaint with the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division

If you file a complaint, the agency should investigate whether your internship violates the department's six-part test. If an investigator decides in your favor, the Labor Department should tell your employer to pay you.

First, call 866-4US-WAGE. A Labor Department employee should evaluate your complaint and decide whether it's worth investigating. Sometimes the agency warns employers in advance of an investigation; sometimes it doesn't. The investigator may interview you, other employees, former employees and the managerial staff.

If it's a "full investigation," the investigator should also look for other labor law violations. For example, are all eligible employees paid overtime? Has the employer wrongfully misclassified any employees as exempt from certain benefits? Is the employer keeping proper records?

If the department decides your internship violates minimum wage law, the investigator should call a "final conference" with your employer. During that meeting, the investigator should explain why you should be paid (and explain any other labor law violations that need to be corrected). Then the investigator should ask your employer to agree to comply. Typically, the investigator will not tell your employer how much you're owed in back wages until your employer agrees to pay you. If the employer has a history of labor law violations, or if the violations are "willful," the agency may levy additional fines.

The Labor Department hasn't investigated many unpaid internships because it's waiting for interns to file complaints — something they are generally reluctant to do. But when the agency does investigate, it often finds that interns should have been paid minimum wage.

The upside of filing a complaint: They are confidential. The Labor Department shouldn't tell your boss you filed a complaint or whether a complaint even exists.

The downside: Technically, even if the Labor Department decides you are owed back wages, the agency can't force your employer to pay you. Your employer could refuse to comply. ProPublica found at least one case where the Labor Department declined to sue a company after it refused to pay back wages to its former interns. If the department doesn't step in, interns can try to win back wages by filing a lawsuit on their own.

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