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Hidden dangers in hiring interns

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Companies across the country are currently looking for interns to hire for the summer — many of them as unpaid help. Are some of their employers breaking the law?

When hiring summer help, how do companies know whether they’re getting a true intern or an employee who must be paid at least minimum wage?

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) never uses the term “intern.” However, it does distinguish between employee and a trainee. Many interns qualify as trainees, and therefore aren’t covered by the FLSA.

But not all of them qualify. The Department of Labor uses a six-factor test to determine who can legally be considered a trainee. All of the following criteria must be met, according to the DOL:

* The training is similar to what would be offered in a vocational school
* The primary benefit of the program is for the trainees
* The trainees don’t displace regular employees
* The employer gets no “immediate advantage” from the trainees’ activities
* The trainees aren’t guaranteed a permanent job at the end of the program, and
* They understand beforehand they aren’t entitled to wages.

Simply put, if the interns benefit from the arrangement, they can legally be considered volunteers rather than paid employees. To keep compliant, the focus of an internship program should be on mentoring and exposing interns to real-life experience, rather than on getting them to produce a certain amount of work.

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