Summer Internship programs can be valuable experiences for both the business and the intern. There is perhaps no better way for an aspiring young person to learn what truly happens in her or his chosen career path than by getting real life experience with a company in that field. Businesses also get much more than low or no-cost help with interns – they can gain enhanced perspective, fresh ideas and specialized skill sets. Internships also provide employers the opportunity to discover and test drive new talent before making an offer for a larger employment opportunity with the company. According to internships.com, more than a third of fulltime, entry-level college hires come from business internship programs.
Internship programs do come with some legal risks for businesses depending on how the program is constructed, the structured duties assigned to an intern, and how the intern is to be paid—or not to be paid.
The United States Department of Labor recently announced new rules for internships that place any intern in a very different place in employment law than the hourly wage or exempt part-time or temporary employee. The Texas Workforce Commission also offers guidance for employers on some frequently asked questions regarding internships in Texas.
Many employers are besieged with requests from well-intentioned friends and families at the beginning of the summer in search of somewhere for their young student to observe what health care professionals, advertising agencies, title companies, law firms and others do. But taking on an intern who is unpaid or underpaid can be a quick path to disaster if the internship is designed to simply replace work a paid employee would typically do rather than providing an actual educational experience for the student. Many of the recent changes to rules regulating internships came in response to a settlement by Fox Seachlight Pictures with two former interns.
It is also important to remember that interns may have access to sensitive information about a business’ employees, clients or others. Those with a license and years of training know almost instinctively how to handle such information. But the summer intern may not. Limiting an intern’s access to protected information or making it clear that such information is private and not to be divulged is essential. In some cases, asking the intern to sign an agreement when handling such information is appropriate.
Since interns will often be immersed in your company’s culture, it is also important for them to become familiar with the rules of appropriate and professional conduct and demeanor in the work place. Interns should be asked to read and sign the employee policies and handbook. This can protect an employer from interns who act inappropriately towards other employees, customers or others. It is also a great educational component of an intern’s experience in a real business setting.
While some things about the US Department of Labor rules have changed making it easier to have an unpaid summer intern, think seriously what the intern may and may not do and still receive a high quality educational experience. This needs to occur before, not after the intern arrives.
The Fowler Law Firm PC is pleased to participate in the summer law intern program sponsored by the Austin Bar Association’s Diversity Fellowship Program. We are honored to be able to participate.
About your authors
Susan Littleton is The Fowler Law Firm PC Section Chief Employment Law. She previously served for many years as a City of Austin Municipal Court Judge and actually knows how to find and enjoys reading City of Austin Municipal Ordinances!
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