Are Unpaid Internships Illegal in California?

It’s uncommon to find an industry that does not utilize unpaid interns. From marketing to medical, financial to legal, getting exposure into the day to day world of a student’s career can seem like a promising way to gain valuable experience; however, this is not always the case. Oftentimes, interns find that their positions amount to providing the company free remedial labor while gaining little educational experience in return. This kind of situation is ripe for exploitation, and California law accordingly limits employers’ ability to utilize unpaid internships.

Internship Trends Post COVID-19

Currently, unpaid internships are in decline across the U.S. With the emergence of COVID-19, this number has even further reduced over the years. According to Business Insider, travel and tourism jobs saw the largest change in summer internships with a decline in openings by 92% while information technology internships saw a reduction of 76%. Out of 27 industries, 16 have seen declines in internship openings between 50-60%.

As on-the-job educational opportunities begin to reemerge post-pandemic, it’s important to ask whether those programs truly prioritize the learning and education of students as they transition to professionals in the workplace. Students have learned through unfair treatment and harsh experiences that the glorification of the “summer internship” role is not always something to covet. Tasks like delivering morning coffee, answering phone lines, and filing documents are not exactly educational.

Given that nearly 80% of offices in the U.S. continue to remain remote throughout the pandemic, this traditional landscape looks to be changing even more. Clocking in is no longer required for individuals to receive the experience needed for them to excel, so where does that leave college students on the cusp of entering the job market? The majority of companies who have taken their employment to the virtual frontier have also adopted online internship opportunities, according to The Society for Human Resources Management

Common Injustices Facing Interns in The Workforce

Unpaid internships have long been coveted as valuable opportunities to gain relevant work experience, network with professionals in your future field of work, and build your resume while working towards a formal college degree. While there is truth to these claims, unpaid internships do not always live up to the student’s expectations.

Studies show that while paid internships yield higher employment outcomes than unpaid internships do, the difference in employment rates for unpaid interns and those with no internship experience is minimal.

Considering also that internships are generally more accessible to individuals whose families are able to financially support them, inequities in employment resources is a common result. To the limited extent that unpaid interns are able to actually make useful professional connections, these opportunities can prioritize one race and class group over the other, creating disparity and marginalization in the employment sector. Generally, internships promise experience, but oftentimes students face unfair or highly exploitative workplace demands, and in some cases, these conditions can be outright illegal.

Does California Law Protect Unpaid Interns?

While there is no hard-and-fast legal rule to determine whether an internship ought to be covered by minimum wage and overtime laws, there are several factors that can help to determine whether an unpaid internship is legal or illegal. Both The Federal Department of Labor and the California Department of Industrial Relations have issued standards that a company must meet when facilitating an unpaid internship. They include the following:

  1. The position is similar to professional training one might receive in vocational school.
  2. The internship exists for the benefit of the interns.
  3. Interns work under close supervision with a professional and do not replace other employees.
  4. The employer does not immediately benefit from the internship. Regular operations may even be impeded by providing resources to the program.
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  6. The employer and intern both understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for their hours worked.


No one factor determines whether an internship is ultimately a position that requires pay; however, if you agreed to work an internship without pay, your employer still may have been required to pay you for your labor. If the position was not educational, resembled paid positions at an organization, did not exist for your benefit, and directly benefited your employer, you may be able to seek back pay for your labor during the internship.

Know Your Rights as an Intern in the State of California | Kyle Todd, P.C.

While there are other means for students to gain introductory experience into the workforce such as paid part-time trainee roles, these opportunities are sometimes few and far between. Unpaid internship injustice is a relatively new field of legal strategy; however, the more cases that are brought to court, the more likely that legislation will be crafted to defend students against exploitation. If you have worked in an unpaid internship for which you did not get school credit, gained little to no educational experience, or your labor was used to replace a staff member, call Kyle Todd, P.C. today. You may be able to receive back pay for your free labor in the State of California. Call (866) Work-Law or contact us online for a free consultation