Mariel Smith is a Columbus, Georgia-based, partner in the labor and employment practice at Hall Booth Smith, P.C. She advises employers and HR leaders on a number of matters related to managing their workforces. She may be reached at [email protected]. Views are the author’s own.
Summertime means sunshine, schools are out and offices across the U.S. welcome college students as interns. While the chance to contribute to a young professional’s future and gain some much-needed help in the office are exciting opportunities, employers must take time in advance to prepare for an intern’s arrival, or they could find themselves in a legal predicament.
Before hiring summer interns, employers need to answer questions about interns’ employment status and whether they will be paid. Will they be considered employees? If they are unpaid, would they still be considered employees? The Fair Labor Standards Act requires for-profit employers to pay employees for their work. Interns and students, however, may not necessarily be classified as “employees” under FLSA — in which case the law does not require that they be compensated for their work.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division Fact Sheet #71 explains a “primary beneficiary test” for unpaid interns and students. This test allows courts to examine the “economic reality” of the intern-employer relationship to determine which party is the “primary beneficiary,” which in turn determines whether an intern or student is in fact an employee under FLSA. If employers are uncertain about how to classify interns, they should consult the DOL’s resources or an employment law attorney.
Additionally, if interns are receiving school credit for the work as part of their coursework, employers should make sure they are familiar with the course requirements related to the internship and clear on what their responsibilities will be. Should the employer provide reports to the teacher or professor? If so, how often, and what should be included in those reports?
Before the interns arrive, employers should have a process in place to onboard and train them as needed. The onboarding process may be similar to that used for other employees, and time should be allotted for completing all of the necessary hiring paperwork. An orientation — whether formal or informal — should provide information regarding specific expectations, work hours, dress code, etc.
It is also a good idea to give interns a direct supervisor and let them know who to contact with questions or concerns. If the orientation includes a lot of information, it may be a good idea to conduct it over the course of a few days. A two-hour meeting each day for the first week, for example, likely will be less overwhelming than eight straight hours the first day.
Make sure all interns have specific offices or designated areas set up for them, including a computer, office supplies and whatever else is needed to help them succeed in their jobs. The last thing employers want to convey is that they either didn’t expect the interns or forgot they were coming, as this could make them feel unwelcome.
Also, plan actual tasks or assignments for the interns to work on prior to their arrival. This is important in helping the interns feel welcomed and useful the moment they start. Once they start doing substantive work for the organization, the employer should designate someone to provide feedback on that work.
One decision related to summer interns many employers are faced with lately, particularly since the pandemic, is whether those interns will work on-site or remotely. The same tips as outlined above apply to remote interns, and it is even more important to provide guidelines regarding expectations, work hours and any flexibility in schedules, if applicable. It’s a great idea to assign a mentor to check in with the summer interns daily, which will allow more direct supervision and ensure that interns have the opportunity to ask questions every day.
Employers should ensure they are making their interns feel like they are part of the team — and not just in the office. Invite them to events outside of the office that employees may be participating in, such as an employee appreciation day.
Remember, hiring interns is an excellent way to both boost your organization’s reputation among future job seekers and pre-screen viable candidates for future openings. In today’s tight job market, a small investment in an excellent intern program can pay big dividends down the road.