Summer Interns: Are They Volunteers or Employees?

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Summer is around the corner and teens and college students, or recent graduates, are seeking summer internships to gain knowledge and job experience in an area of interest or study.

At the same time, many nonprofits are hoping to engage interns to accomplish projects, often in areas staff don’t have skills in, while offering the intern a chance to experience the nonprofit’s day-to-day operations and mission-driven activities.

So, it’s a win-win, right? It certainly can be as long as employment laws are followed. When deciding the scope of intern engagement, whether and/or how to pay them, and whether or not they are added to your employee ranks, consider the Department of Labor (DOL) guidelines for interns, or as they call them, ‘trainees.’

The intern or ‘trainee’ must meet these six criteria (all of them) to be an intern and not an employee:

  1. The training the intern receives ‘is similar to what would be offered in a vocational school’
  2. The ‘primary benefit of the training/internship is to the intern’
  3. The ‘trainees don’t displace regular employees but work under close supervision’
  4. The ‘nonprofit employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the interns, and on occasion, its operations may actually be impeded’
  5. The ‘intern is not guaranteed a permanent job at the end of the program’
  6. The ‘nonprofit employer and intern understand that the intern isn’t entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship’

All criteria are important, but number 4 is a key area the DOL looks at in determining if the ‘intern’ is, indeed, an employee. Employees must be paid at least minimum wage, on the regular payroll schedule, with all required employee taxes withheld and deposited.

To qualify as interns, their engagement needs to: be primarily related to their own benefit through mentoring and/or training; include credit for a course or major with required reports to the sponsoring educational institution; not include work done by regular employees; not guarantee future employment.

To learn more about this important topic, read the entire article from which this information was taken. Classifying interns mistakenly can lead to penalties as well as having to pay back wages and employment taxes. Classifying them correctly benefits everyone.

The Nonprofit Risk Management Center offers a range of resources for nonprofits, including webinars on general risks and human resources risks. ONEplace offers them regularly throughout the year. Check our calendar for upcoming topics and dates.


Department of Labor guidelines for interns

Posted by Bobbe Luce at 04/22/2011 01:39:07 PM | 

I think these criteria are still a little too harsh. Thus only certain organizations can meet, and financial resources are directed in certain directions. This is not healthy I think. Any organization that has results worth while can benefit from these resources. Only it will be maximum transparency.
Posted by: albine vanzare ( Email ) at 4/25/2011 2:00 AM

I have had interns before and what many don't realize is there is a large time investment on the part of the employer. More often Point #4 is true than not! It's so important to keep internship programs in place, as the experience helps prepare the student for real world work.
Posted by: Maggie Brown ( Email ) at 5/11/2011 5:49 PM

Great clarification of the differences.

Thank you!
Posted by: Law School Resume ( Email ) at 5/23/2011 12:01 AM

Internship programs are now and have always been an excellent way for employees or students to get some experience and on the job training in the chosen field. I believe that internship programs are more needed now then ever considering the current economy and job market!
Posted by: Steven Alezik ( Email ) at 6/19/2011 6:22 PM

Thank you for providing the six criteria for interns/trainees. Number 4 certainly doesn't encourage an internship program.

Leave it to the Government to make things more complicated than they need to be.
Posted by: Lorn Hughs ( Email ) at 10/2/2011 3:24 PM

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