Private law firms that take on unpaid interns and externs need to be careful. Many industries are seeing an uptick in lawsuits by former interns and externs claiming they should have been paid, should have been provided with a required meal and rest periods and otherwise treated as employees, not the volunteers they were touted to be.
The general rule in California is that any person that suffers or permits another to perform work for them is an employer and the California Labor Code will apply to that relationship. An internship or externship falls outside of that general definition only if the workers attain the special status of trainee or intern who performs some work as part of an educational or vocational program. Unless the internship is set up to fall within the exception to the general rule, an intern is nothing more than an employee with a different label attached to him or her, and all of the laws related to how to treat an employee applies equally to that intern. Thus, unless the internship is clearly within the legal exception to the rule, the intern has the right to be paid, the right to meal and rest periods, the right to accurate and timely paychecks and pay stubs, and all other rights of an employee. The intern cannot be asked to waive those rights; any attempt to procure a waiver would be void as a matter of law.