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Unpaid internships

Question:

We often get people asking to trail at our restaurant and we take interns from culinary schools. Is it legal to have unpaid interns? 

– Fine Dining Executive Chef, New York, NY

Answer:

Culinary externs/interns, apprentices and cooks trailing are fixtures across our industry.  It’s a source of free labor, a great way for a student or novice cook to learn in the real world, and a good opportunity for you as an employer to scope out new talent.  It can be legal to have unpaid interns but you have to structure their roles very carefully so you fit within the legal guidelines for unpaid interns set by the US Department of Labor:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

In short, unpaid interns should be part of an approved educational program and should fit into the criteria above. If the internship does not meet the above criteria, the Department of Labor considers the interns to be employees and you are subject to the wage laws accordingly.  For your protection I would recommend getting documentation from the intern’s professor or the college career office indicating that the internship is part of the student’s educational program. 

There are some special considerations for restaurant interns.  Because we feed the public and a health inspector can drop by anytime, it is a good idea to require that your interns have ServSafe or another food handler certification as required in your municipality, and TiPS or ServSafe Alcohol if they are working front-of-house.  Of course the best protection is the most expensive—provide paid internships at or above the minimum wage.

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