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FLSA Limits Work Done by Volunteers, Unpaid Interns

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in Compensation and Benefits,Hiring,Human Resources

Q. I run a small advertising office. A college student has asked to join our staff for the summer. She proposed to work every day for a couple months at no cost. It would be great to get some free help. Is there anything wrong with hiring her? G.I., Maryland

A. Possibly. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires that all nonexempt employees be paid a minimum wage for the hours they work, but there are narrow exemptions for trainees and volunteers. If you expect to derive advantages from the work she performs, then she would not qualify as a trainee. A volunteer, also strictly defined by the regulations, covers civic-minded citizens involved in such charitable activities as helping children or the underprivileged.

Summer interns will be considered trainees under certain circumstances outlined in the regulations. Although interns are often hired through a school program or receive some sort of academic credit for their work, that's not a requirement. The general rule is that students are considered interns when involved in education or training designed to provide them with professional experience.

Consider whether you can meet the intern criteria before taking on your free help. If she doesn't qualify as an intern but is younger than 20, you may be able to pay her less than the minimum for the first 90 days under the FLSA's “opportunity wage” exemption, currently $4.25 per hour. But you must pay whichever is the higher wage under state or federal law.

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