Businesses hire interns to share their field experience with newcomers, get entry-level and administrative tasks done, and help students get the real-world experience they need to be successful. Although these student employees often work in exchange for stipends or academic credit, employers need to be careful: Interns do not equal free labor, and if you’re thinking of welcoming interns into your office, there are a few key points to consider before you make your first hire. Business News Daily spoke with legal and HR experts about providing a beneficial, legally compliant experience for your interns in a for-profit setting. The pay question: What duties are being performed? Pop culture (based on many real-life stories) makes it seem like interns’ lives revolve around making copies, standing in long lines to get everyone coffee, and answering their boss’s phone calls in the middle of the night, all without a single penny in return. However, there are tasks that an intern could be doing that would categorize them as an employee – which would mean legal entitlement to compensation.
The decision of whether to pay an intern is largely based on what the intern is doing. Adam Kemper, a labor and employment attorney for the Greenspoon Marder law firm, said there needs to be a distinction between interns’ duties and a typical employee’s duties if you don’t intend to pay them. “On a day-to-day basis, what is the intern doing?” Kemper said. “Shadowing? Running errands? Is he or she (working) independently or supervised?” “Ensure that (an unpaid) intern is not performing work or taking on responsibilities that would typically be performed by a full-time employee,” added Samantha Lambert, director of human resources at Blue Fountain Media. If there’s any doubt whatsoever about whether the worker should be classified as an intern or employee, Kemper advised sticking with “employee” and adding him or her to the payroll. “What’s problematic for companies is that they’re having interns run errands, get coffee, buy things for (employees) – nothing educational,” Kemper said. “If you want to have someone do that, treat them as an employee and pay minimum wage.” What tasks can an intern perform? If you decide to pay your intern, that might change the way you structure your program. Paid interns who receive at least minimum wage and overtime pay for working beyond 40 hours per week can technically perform the work of your regular workforce. However, the Department of Labor has a very specific set of guidelines regarding what unpaid interns can and can’t do. If receiving academic credit is not a possibility or the intern is already out of school, Lambert noted, your company must comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This means your internship program must be designed so your company does not benefit at all from the interns’ work, and the experience should be for educational purposes only. The employer should aim to provide the intern with skills that can be used in his or her future career, rather than skills particular to its own operations.
A good way to make the experience educational is to talk to the intern about the differences between school and career and tie their education into their internship. “Students can have an idealistic view of how their college course has totally prepared them for the full-time position,” said Tim Elmore, president of Growing Leaders. “While I can remain very positive about the need for higher education, I always communicate how different an eight-hour workday on the job is compared to a school day on the campus. I talk about the practical value of soft skills … versus the classroom, which measures memorization and test scores.” Kemper advised thinking about the tasks you’d want an intern to do long before you begin searching for candidates. This way, you can clearly articulate the duties and learning experience an intern can expect from your company.