Paid interns may qualify for jobless benefits

BEND — Paid interns, even if they're hired only for a fixed period, can apply for and receive unemployment benefits after an internship ends.

To take home an unemployment check, the qualifications that apply to permanent workers also apply to people who have lost temporary employment, such as a paid internship or contract labor, said Craig Spivey, a spokesman for the Oregon Employment Department. A paid internship is no different than any other job, he said.

"I think what throws people off is that term, internship," Spivey said. "It's a job. You're being paid to do a job. If it's an unpaid internship, and you're not getting any wages, it's a different animal."

Spivey said the first thing the state researches when someone applies for unemployment benefits is the reason he or she applied. The end of an internship could be considered a lack of available work and a qualifying reason to receive unemployment, he said.

Additionally, the applicant must meet a certain income ratio during a 12-month period, have minimum wages of $1,000 and log 500 hours of work in applicable industries to qualify. Workers in certain industries, such as agriculture, can't qualify for unemployment insurance for reasons such as the seasonality of the work.

The total wages someone earned over that 12-month period must be at least 11/2; times higher than the applicant's highest-earning three-month period within that year.

For example, if a person earned $4,500 during three months the largest sum he or she earned over three consecutive months he or she would qualify for benefits if their annual earnings were 11/2; times higher than $4,500, or $6,750.

"A person who worked part-time for one month may not have enough wages to qualify," Spivey said.

A paid intern was hired at a Bend business for a fixed, six-month period at the end of last year. The internship ended after the agreed upon six months, leaving the intern out of work.

A couple of months later, the local business received a notice from the Oregon Employment Department saying the business would have to pay for its former intern's unemployment benefits, money that is taken out of the state-maintained unemployment insurance fund into which the company pays.

Spivey said the number of intern-related requests isn't tracked because unemployment claims, which are not public record, do not list jobs held by the person asking for benefits. They typically only declare the business the employee worked for, he said.

Michael Porter, an employment law and labor relations attorney at Miller Nash in Portland, said he is uncertain whether unemployment was properly awarded in the Bend case, because there was a fixed employment period.

Porter did not know the details of the Bend business's situation and hadn't recently reviewed the specifics of Oregon law regarding interns and other temporary employees receiving unemployment benefits.

Porter said awarding an intern unemployment benefits could be a disincentive for employers considering offering paid internships, which, because of the inexperienced worker, are sometimes a burden to the employer.

"It may be something an employer might not want to take on if they're balancing the pros and the cons," Porter said.

There are multiple other requirements any employee must follow in order to receive unemployment, such as actively looking for and being available for work.

For those reasons, it requires a situation-by-situation analysis to determine whether any one person can qualify for unemployment, Spivey said.

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