Summer internships offer students opportunities to gain real-world experience and hands-on career development. Conversely, internship programs give employers access to highly motivated and educated young workers and give junior managers more experience training and supervising. There are benefits for everyone involved.
However, there are some potential legal and administrative pitfalls that many employers overlook. One of the largest issues is determining what interns should be paid – or not paid.
The Department of Labor issued new guidance on January 5, 2018, that gives employers more flexibility in deciding whether to pay interns. A seven-criteria test is now used to determine if an internship may be unpaid, but the biggest change is that not all factors need to be met – no single factor is decisive, and the determination is made on the unique circumstances of each case.
If the job training program primarily provides professional experience that furthers a student’s educational goals, a student may not be considered an employee entitled to compensation. However, if students are doing work usually done by employees and are not receiving training and close mentoring, they should be paid wages. If there is any doubt, the best approach is to pay the student.
However, while it’s now legally permissible to classify more interns as unpaid, there are still compelling reasons to pay interns even when the internship does meet the criteria for unpaid status.
Unpaid internships tend to exclude students from lower- and middle-income backgrounds, who cannot afford not to work at paid jobs during the summer. In addition, they may need to pay up to several thousand dollars for course credit, in addition to coming up with funds for housing, clothing, and transportation related to the internship. This can put internships out of reach for some of the students who can benefit from them the most.
Unpaid internships may devalue the work paid employees are doing. After all, interns are working alongside regular employees — often doing some of the same tasks — and not being compensated for that work. This may send the message to employees that their work, or time, is not valued.
Unpaid internships can create a negative impression of your company. Customers or the community may see you as taking advantage of these students, which is not the message you want to portray. It’s a good community relations move to offer youth paid opportunities.
The work the unpaid intern is doing may actually be work that should be compensable. Improperly classifying an internship and not paying the student could result in wage claims that include back pay, penalties, and fines. To mitigate those risks, once again, the best approach is to pay the student.
Hiring summer students is a great way to help youth learn what it takes to be successful in business while helping employers get special projects completed. Plan ahead and structure your program so that your summer internship program is a great experience for everyone.
Get the new Department of Labor criteria for unpaid internships, as well as additional guidance on internship compensation and practical tips for hiring interns, in our free white paper, What Employers Need to Know About Hiring Summer Interns.