why hospitals are allowed to use zero wage volunteers and businesses are not?

we all know that hospitals can have “candy stripers” working for free, building their valuable leadership experience and adding activities to college application form.

By contrast, every time a “free intern” job is advertised on Craigslist (and there are plenty such nowadays), there is an angry comment from somebody that zero wage interns can only be employed while under legislative restrictions the length of the internal revenue code.

Is this just a matter of for-profit vs non-profit status? Could a non-profit steel mill employ volunteer steel workers?

Non-profit vs. for-profit is indeed the distinction. In the US, unpaid internships (or other volunteer work) must be with non-profits, government, or for course credit. When the internship is for course credit, it can be unpaid. An example of this is the case with some engineering co-op positions, although sometimes those are paid. And this model is becoming increasingly common in other fields, too.

I’m not sure a non-profit model would work for a steel mill, and I’m not sure if people with the necessary qualifications would volunteer, but the barriers seem to be practical rather than legal.

In the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness” the lead character was offered an unpaid internship at a big brokerage firm. This was a nonfiction biography. I have yet to hear of a non-profit brokerage firm, and the character was not getting course credit IIRC. Was this element exaggerated for the film, or are unpaid internships more common than you suggest?

I’m a Top Chef fan, and learned chefs often ask for a stage (pronounced roughly- st ah gz) at big restaurants. A stage is an unpaid internship at a fancy restaurant. It’s usually a week or two at most. Excellent opportunity for a young chef to learn his craft.

“stage” is a French word meaning internship/apprenticeship.

I’d love to hear the answer to this as well.

At the risk of looking stupid I had gotten the impression that an unpaid internship was a usual part of business in certain industries in the States. Particualry places like Broking firms (not just from the movie), and the Publishing industry.

The purpose of unpaid internships is to weed out the lower classes, by making sure that only kids whose parents are rich enough to support them get the job. At least, that’s my impression of the institution.

As long as it doesn’t violate any labor laws, in my understanding, there is no requirement that the organization must be a non-profit. I may be wrong, IANAL. However, the definition of “volunteer” activity as relates to employment law is very strict, and therefore as a practical matter is very difficult for regular businesses to qualify under.

Here is an excerpt from a document describing the eligibility of foreign nationals [international students lacking work authorization] as relates to volunteer opportunities vs. employment. Although it is a specific case, it gives you some idea of the definitions involved:

ETA: And, therefore, if the position qualifies as “employment” as opposed to “volunteer”, labor laws such as minimum wage law would apply (unless there are other specific exemptions).

I wonder if then the brokerage houses and publishers can do it because they’ve always had unpaid “volunteers” doing specific intern work, so it qualifies.

Chris Gardner was in a stock broker trainee program. I think they can run a period of time unpaid to weed out people to aren’t going to cut it and then they can continue paid. I could be wrong, I think some of the unpaid time has to do with getting people ready for their Series 7 license.

I wouldn’t really call that type of thing being a “volunteer”. You may run around and get coffee from time to time, but you are there more to study and be indoctrinated.

Many studios (Disney, Warner, etc) and other art-type employers use interns. As far as I’ve been able to tell, they are all for course credit. I’m fairly certain interns are common in radio as well.

It’s technically an educational program before one sits for the Series 7 exam.

The following are criteria that ALL must be met for an internship to be unpaid, according to the Department of Labor:

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school;
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee;
  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
  6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

In the case of most careers that require licensure, you can’t be paid for that work until you’ve got the license in hand. So until that happens, you work for free as an intern. Also, some licenses are predicated on serving what is essentially an apprenticeship that lasts so many clock hours, and that may be at a for-profit business like a hair salon.

What about “contractors”? My gym hires coaches and pays them a flat rate per 10-week session. They give people the option to do this on a volunteer basis or paid basis (there’s even a check mark on the signup form), even though they are by no means a non-profit. Is this kosher?

That is so hideously cynical. I’ve always been suspicious of internships, and now I know why. I’m going to start pretending that this was my idea.

The training program is one of the reasons it would be allowed. He is not an employee because he is still being trained, has received no job offer and has no guarantee of a job. Furthermore, he’s not doing the exact same job as any proper employee and is not specifically being trained for a job in the company. He’s only receiving general experience and education.

Another example of how this works is the H&R Block tax course. You pay $300 to take the course. While they do select their new employees from graduates of the course, they do not promise you a job when you graduate. If they did promise that you’d have a job after the course, you’d be considered an employee and they’d have to swallow the course fee and pay you a wage for your for your time in class.

Now… the net effect may be to make some positions only open to those who can afford them, but I don’t think that’s the motivation.

There are significant costs in taking on an intern. I’ve had people ask if they could work for free for my accounting firm and I tell them no. Even working for free, they’d cost so much of my billable time to train and supervise that I’d never break even on them. To make it worth their while, they’d have to work for free AND compensate me for my time.

In fact, I did try this with work-study college students where the government paid 2/3s of their wage. Even when my cost was just $3/hr, they were a total waste of time and loss of money. Nice kids, and very intelligent and eager, but I’d rather help out struggling students by contributing cash to a scholarship fund.

So I really do believe that the businesses offering free internships are just trying to minimize the costs and not trying to weed out the poor.

In Quebec, welfare recipients are not permitted to do volunteer work, such as being a candy striper. I and not sure what the reasoning is behind this prohibition. If you are caught, you forfeit the welfare you got during that period. As far as I can tell, the main effect of this is to prevent them from leaving the welfare rolls by gaining useful experience. This would have meant, for example, that a J. K. Rowling could not have legally written her first Harry Potter book.