The U.S. federal government and state governments have developed labor laws to protect American and international workers from unfair work practices. In general, if a person is providing any type of service or activity normally performed in exchange for money, tuition, fees, books, supplies, room, food or any other benefit, he or she is an employee protected by labor laws. Therefore, even if an international student is not paid for the work performed, he or she is still considered an employee and must have work authorization.
Generally, interns are considered employees and must receive compensation for their work. Employees may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers. There are very limited exceptions to this requirement, as specified the "Internship Programs Under the Fair Labor Standards Act" document from the U.S. Department of Labor.
It is important to note that New Jersey Wage and Hour Regulations are even stricter that the Fair Labor Standards Act. The New Jersey Wage and Hour Regulations (N.J.A.C. 12:56 et seq) cover this topic:
If an international student finds a unpaid internship which he or she believes does not require work authorization in compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act, a letter from the employer specifically clarifying this matter must be provided to the student’s international student adviser before starting the position.
A volunteer is a person who donates his or her service for religious, charitable, civic, or humanitarian purposes to nonprofit organizations. Because volunteers give their service freely without any anticipation of compensation, they are not considered employees of the nonprofit organizations that receive their service. Therefore, international students do not need work authorization to participate in a volunteer experience.
For more information about volunteer opportunities at Rutgers and in the New Brunswick community, please see Rutgers Off-Campus Living and Community Partnerships Give Where You Live opportunities.
For more information about volunteering under the Fair Labor Standards Act, please visit this website.