By Rieva Lesonsky
If you’re not ready to hire a full-time employee, but still have work that needs to get done, consider hiring an intern. A market strategy as old as time, many first-time job seekers are eager to get a few internships on their resumes in order to gain experience, exposure to an industry, and possibly be considered for full-time employment at a later date. Finding interns can be as easy as paying a visit to your local college campus career office or going online to such sites as Urban Interns, InternMatch and InternJobs.
But if you think you can get free labor by hiring interns, you’re likely mistaken—and those mistakes could cost your business big-time. There are specific criteria and regulations (both federal and state) regarding paid and unpaid internships, and small business owners often cross the legal line without knowing it.
In many states paid interns are essentially considered regular employees and subject to the same employment laws and regulations. That means they’re earning salaries (at least minimum wage) and are eligible for overtime if they work more than 40 hours in a week.
If you want to hire unpaid interns, the job must meet The Department of Labor’s six criteria:
1. Even though the actual work happens in the facilities of the employer, the internship is similar to training given in an educational environment;
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
4. The business that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
To make it perfectly clear to the DOL that your internship is not a ruse to get free labor, the work experience should be similar to what the employee would gain in a classroom structure. The intern should be learning skills that can be used in other work environments, not just in the job you have them doing.
Think of internships as educational training (and not just employment) and you’ll be on the right track. If unpaid interns perform duties such as filing or answering phones, instead of learning specific skills that’s a violation of the rules.