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Don’t assume that hiring interns mean free labor for the summer.

As the summer season heats up, college and high school students are busy interning in marketing departments and agencies. And there’s a lot of misconception out there about the “yippee, I get labor for free” mentality that we see all too often. It’s true, you have the opportunity to give a young person a lot of real life experience, but …

You’ve heard the saying “there is no free lunch,” right? Well, according to the Department of Labor, there is no free labor when it comes to the definition of a true, unpaid intern. If you’d like to read the alarmingly legalese definitions of what the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) has lined out as regulations to protect interns, along with the Department of Labor’s position on the subject, you can find more details at www.tinyurl.com/DOLrules.

Protection for Interns

When thinking about hiring unpaid interns, there are some key points you’ll want to mull over before deciding to bring them on board. First, to save you from having to sift through the definitions on the link above, here’s the condensed (but not comprehensive) list of rules that could make your unpaid intern illegal:

  • Unpaid interns cannot be the only source of labor for a company.
  • They must not displace the regular employees and instead must work under the close supervision of existing staff employees.
  • Employers must not lure interns with the promise of future employment.
  • Your business cannot be dependent on the work of the intern.
  • If the intern is sometimes used as a substitute for regular workers or to augment the employer’s existing workforce during specific time periods, they should be paid minimum wage and overtime.
  • If the intern receives the same level of supervision as the employer’s regular workforce, this would suggest an employment relationship and could be considered a W-2 employee.

The bottom line here is that if you’re just having an unpaid intern come in and shadow employees and maybe help a little here and there, you’re probably OK. But, if you’re following the all-too-common philosophical view of “yippee, I get labor for free,” then you might be in for a rude awakening.

Unpaid interns should use their experience to earn course credit from their college or university. Be prepared to write an evaluation or verify their experience with an instructor.

Questions and Anvils

Second, and this is a biggie, if anyone is going to drop an anvil on their foot, it’s likely to be your intern—don’t know why, but it always seems to be the case. If they do and they’re unpaid, you might want to take a look and make sure that your workers’ compensation insurance will cover their poor, mangled toes—because it’s probable that it won’t.

So, if you’re looking for a “free labor summer,” you might want to take a step back and consider all this. Solve all your problems by making those young people minimum-wage employees, and you might legally be able to give them a real work experience.

tagged with: Human Resources




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