Employers need to be very careful about offering unpaid internships

Dear Working Wise: My daughter just accepted a two-month unpaid internship with an advertising agency. I think this will be a great experience for her, because she is an aspiring graphic artist, but I’m wondering if unpaid internships are legal? Should they be paying her? Signed, Doting Dad

Dear Doting Dad: The workplace is one of the best places to pick up valuable skills and experience related to your dream career. Some employers may want employees to take unpaid positions, however, most unpaid internships do not comply with Alberta’s Employment Standards legislation.

Employers need to be very careful about offering unpaid internships. Simply calling a position an ‘internship’ does not exempt it from Employment Standards.

Even if an intern agrees to receive no compensation from an organization, Part 1, Section 4 of the Employment Standards Code clearly states that these minimum standards cannot be avoided through agreements.

Alberta’s Employment Standards Code considers an “employee” to be anyone employed to do work who receives or is entitled to wages. Work is defined as providing a service to the employer.

Accordingly, an internship may be unpaid only if the internship solely benefits the intern by providing her with training or skills without the employer benefitting from the intern’s actions/efforts.

Essentially, if your daughter performs work for the agency, she is an employee and is covered by Employment Standards, including minimum wage.

There are some exceptions to minimum wage legislation, but they are very limited.

Some of the more common exemptions from minimum wage requirements that students may encounter, include:

Work-experience programs approved by the Minister of Advanced Education or the Minister of Community and Social Services;

Off-campus education programs provided under the School Act;

Extras in a film or video production;

Counsellors or instructors at an educational or recreational camp operated on a non-profit basis for children or handicapped individuals or for religious purposes.

The Canadian Intern Association offers a web site at www.internassociation.ca that provides employment standards information for every Canadian province along with advice on how to claim back pay owed to you.

Those working in federally regulated industries are covered under Federal Labour Standards, which differ from Alberta’s Employment Standards.

Federally regulated industries and employers include: banks, air transportation, railways, shipping, communications, broadcasters, fisheries, federal government employees, and corporations.

For more information on federal labour standards, visit canada.ca and search for “federal labour standards.”

If you have more questions about Alberta’s Employment Standards and unpaid internships, visit work.alberta.ca/es.

You can also call the Employment Standards Contact Centre toll-free at 18774273731 or at 7804273731 in Edmonton.

Good luck to you and your daughter.

Do you have a work-related question? Send your questions to Working Wise, at charles.strachey@gov.ab.ca. Charles Strachey is a manager with Alberta Community and Social Services. This column is provided for general information.

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