How to seek back pay from an unpaid internship

USCurrency_Federal_ReserveI’ll be presenting to the California Board of Behavioral Sciences tomorrow on the possibility of changing the title for a post-degree, pre-license MFT from “intern” to “associate.” [Update: That change is going to happen. It takes effect in 2018.] The current intern title is confusing for interns and employers alike, and is likely one reason (albeit certainly not the only one) why so many prelicensed MFTs in California work in unpaid internship settings.

The licensing board meeting will be webcast, and you can get to the webcast through the BBS meeting calendar. But for those who have been through a post-degree unpaid internship in mental health, there are ways of seeking — and sometimes getting — back pay that don’t require a change in professional title.

Before embarking on this mission, you (and potentially a lawyer) should try to determine whether you are in fact eligible for back pay. If your unpaid internship was in a for-profit setting, there is a good chance that the internship does not meet the government’s six-point test for unpaid internships, and that you should have been paid for your work.

If you were in a non-profit setting, the question is more complex. In California, you’ll need to weigh out whether the employer was a “commercial enterprise,” a topic handled well in this article by Dave Jensen at CAMFT. Other states’ guidelines for unpaid internships in nonprofit settings vary wildly, with some states like New York taking tough stances favoring the intern, while other states are more permissive of unpaid work. But don’t assume that just because your work setting was non-profit that you are automatically ineligible. Many California nonprofits are commercial enterprises, and here as in many states, non-profits are not inherently exempt from labor law. As just one example, a psychology intern successfully sued for back pay from the University of California at San Francisco.

If you believe that you are eligible for back pay from an unpaid internship, this fantastic article at ProPublica details the steps you can take to demand it. The first, as you might expect, is to simply go to the employer with what you have learned: That you believe your unpaid internship was in fact a job in the eyes of the law, and you believe you are entitled to back wages for your time. Your employer might disagree, of course, and then you can go on to choose from the other options, which include:

  • Filing a complaint with the US Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.
  • Filing a claim with the your state Labor Board.
  • Filing a lawsuit.

The ProPublica piece has more information on the benefits and drawbacks of each approach, and the specific steps likely to be involved.

The work of post-degree, prelicensed therapists has great value to employers — value that is undercut by California’s “intern” title and the unpaid “internships” that often go along with it. I’ll do my best on the title piece tomorrow, but even in a best-case scenario that will take some time. You can stand up for yourself, and the pay you might be legally entitled to, right now.

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I say it over to the right, but it bears repeating: I’m not a lawyer, so don’t take any of this as legal advice. Whether you are entitled to back pay from an unpaid internship — and if you are, the best way to pursue it — will vary based on your state and the particulars of your situation. If you are considering demanding back pay from an employer, I would strongly encourage you to consult with an attorney first.