My company was offering two paid internships (hourly rate, no benefits) to students in Masters programs. We found an excellent candidate early on, who I will call C1. When their interview process was complete I told them that I wanted to hire them and would work with HR to draft the offer letter. However, when I followed up with HR to do so, HR told me that the company had just entered a hiring freeze due to COVID-19. The freeze had an end date, so I informed the candidate and said we would send an offer ASAP after it lifted. We reached the end date last week and HR informed me that the freeze is still essentially in effect as CEO approval is now required for all new hires.
I began interviewing a second qualified candidate (C2) after the freeze was in effect, so they were aware of it up front. Due to the freeze I made no promises about making an offer. In follow-up conversations, C2 stated they would be interested in doing the internship as an unpaid position. I had not thought about this option before they suggested it.
The company's reason for the freeze is to reserve as much cash as possible due to the economic uncertainties that COVID-19 created. Management already made it clear to me that they would not make exceptions for these positions, even though an intern is a much lower cost to the company than a typical full-time position. Due to this stance I believe the company would accept bringing on the interns as unpaid.
That leaves me at a quandary. Since C2 volunteered the idea, I don't see an issue with making them an unpaid offer. However, I don't know if it is ethical to suggest the idea to C1. From their perspective, the interview process began for a paid position and I was going to send them an offer for it. Now I would be coming back to them and suggesting they forego the pay. My intention is to make sure they don't miss out on work experience they seem very interested in, but making such a suggestion still feels a bit slimy. So, to make my questions plain:
- Is it ethical to offer C2 an unpaid internship since they volunteered the idea?
- Is it ethical to suggest that C1 consider doing the internship as unpaid, or should I simply say that the freeze leaves me unable to make an offer and hope that they also volunteer the idea?
Some additional info in case it's relevant:
- These internships are not guaranteed to translate into a full-time employment offer.
- If the freeze lifts I will try to retroactively make the positions paid again, but I assume my odds of success are low. I will not mention this to the candidates as I don't want it to influence their decision.
UPDATE: Thanks for the responses. I chose motosubatsu's answer because I was not aware of the FLSA considerations, although I hope my employer's HR team would be! I am glad that those protections are in place. For the record, I also am not a fan of unpaid internships; I only started to consider that approach because of the one candidate's suggestion. I also assumed that internships might be harder to find this summer due to COVID-19 and wanted to make sure that both candidates do not miss out on an opportunity. At this point I do not think we will move forward with the unpaid option, but I will offer both of them the option to touch base periodically over the coming months in case they want guidance on personal projects or skills to master. If/when a paid opportunity opens up again I will reach out to them if they are still interested.