Who's liable for an unpaid intern?

young waitress


A culinary student asked me for a summer internship. I told him I didn’t have a position in the budget, but he said he wants to learn and offered to work for free, so I agreed. One of my cooks said that if he gets hurt, it’s on me and not the school. How does that work?

– Chef, Philadelphia


The U.S. Department of Labor does specify how an unpaid internship can be legal, but most restaurant operations would either fail this test or have to significantly alter how they handle internships. For example, one criterion is that “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” Even if you have an intern cutting onions or costing recipes, I think you could pretty clearly argue that that work is benefiting the employer.

So even though it may not seem to make sense, and it may be flattering to have an eager young culinarian willing to work for free to learn from you, your cook is right in this case. As an educator, I know there is no substitute for the real-world work experiences students get through an internship program, and we are so grateful to those employers who provide those opportunities, be they paid or unpaid. But the law generally considers interns to be employees. If an intern is hurt in your kitchen, the fact that they are enrolled in a degree program, earning credit for an internship or hold the title “intern” will not matter much. The short-term savings of unpaid labor could be dwarfed by the medical expenses or lawsuits stemming from an injury to someone working off the books.

My advice is to treat interns as part-time temporary employees and observe wage and hour laws as you would for any other employee. The DOL specifies that “Internships in the ‘for-profit’ private sector will most often be viewed as employment … .” That clears up any gray area with regard to workers’ compensation. It is also, unfortunately, more expensive in the short term than having unpaid interns, so provides some challenges to culinary educators in providing real-world experiences.

As always, consult with your attorney and restaurant association since local regulations may be more stringent, and this is not legal advice.

More on unpaid internships here

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