Now that fall is in full swing and students have returned to classes, many will be seeking internship opportunities to enhance their studies. If your practice has an internship program in place, you are no doubt familiar with the benefits of providing experience to students considering a future in the health care industry. You will, however, need to be aware of changes the U.S. Department of Labor made this year to rules regarding internships in order to remain compliant.
How to Create a Compliant Internship Program
Implementing the following steps will ensure your internship program doesn’t run afoul of the new regulations:
- Unpaid internships must benefit the employee. The Fair Labor Standards Act declares that employees must be paid at least minimum wage, with a few exceptions. Because unpaid internships are popular, you’ll need to make sure your interns meet the criteria laid out in the DOL’s new “primary beneficiary test” to determine whether your interns must be classified as employees if you aren’t paying your interns. The most important qualifying factor is that the program must primarily benefit the intern rather than vice-versa. You’ll need to make sure the intern is practicing a skill in a professional environment and that you aren’t simply taking advantage of unpaid labor.
- Obtain academic approval. While an internship doesn’t have to earn the student any school credit, coordinating with an educational institution will help reduce your risk. The school typically provides a list of internship content criteria and desired skills, allowing you to focus on the critical areas.
- Understand your specific state laws. Employment laws can vary dramatically by state; many have special exceptions to wages and hours that can directly impact interns. If you have not done so, visit your state labor agency’s website. Keep in mind when laws differ, err on the side of caution and adhere to the stricter laws. When in doubt, consult an attorney.
- Draft an internship plan. Having a document spell out, in writing, the nature of the work involved, the skills and experiences to be utilized, and what you hope the intern will gain from the opportunity will ensure transparency and provide you both with a road map of sorts. It’s helpful to meet with the intern on a regular basis, say every two weeks or so, to make sure they are making progress in reaching the goals specified in your plan.
- Look at each internship on a case–by-case basis. The DOL’s new primary beneficiary test is more flexible than its previous six-factor test, so unique circumstances can make a difference in whether or not an internship program meets the proper federal, state, and local criteria. If there is any doubt, it’s always best to pay the intern minimum wage, as litigation can be costly. Besides, you’re both benefiting from the experience!