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After several high-profile lawsuits, including one last summer in which film distribution company Fox Searchlight was found in violation of minimum wage laws, many employers have begun to question their internship practices. Is it ever OK to not pay interns?

The Department of Labor highlights the criteria for when it is acceptable to not pay: The purpose of the internship is for the intern’s education and training, the internship does not displace regular employees, the employer does not benefit (and may actually be impeded), the intern is not promised a job, and there is no expectation of payment. Long story short? There is no such thing as legal free labor.

Toni Ripo, coordinator of career services at USF Sarasota-Manatee, always seeks paid internships for her students; if the company cannot pay, she ensures that “the internship is strictly for the benefit of the students, like vocational training.” She says some local businesses have declined internships to avoid tricky legal situations, but she thinks it is too soon to detect a drop in participation due to the national attention.

“We always ask why they’re offering the internship,” says Ripo, who seeks partnerships with businesses to help grow the regional workforce. The best fits are usually with growing companies that can afford to pay at least minimum wage and have time to set aside for training. “I get leery when there is no training plan in place,” Ripo says. “They tell me what the job needs are, but not what the student is going to learn. That’s when I’m concerned for both the employer and the student.”  -Beau Denton

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