Interns Are Employees, Too ... Sometimes

As a SHRM HR Knowledge Advisor, I receive many questions concerning internships. SHRM members often wonder whether they are required to pay interns (and, if so, how much) or whether interns must complete new-hire paperwork. Members have also asked whether interns can be classified as independent contractors and receive a Form 1099 rather than a W-2 and whether interns are entitled to employee benefits. Hiring interns can seem complex, but it doesn’t have to be.

There are two types of internships—paid and unpaid. For an internship to be unpaid, the individual circumstances must meet criteria established by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). If the nature of the working relationship doesn’t pass the DOL’s test, the internship must be paid. Here, we’ll focus on paid internships.

When an internship is paid, the intern is considered an employee. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. Much like the classifications “full time,” “part-time,” or “temporary,” the term “intern” is simply an adjective describing the type of employee the worker is.

Most employment laws do not provide an exception for interns. Rather, interns are generally entitled to the same legal protections and requirements as any other employee. For instance, interns will need to complete a Form I-9 along with federal and state withholding forms upon hire. Like other nonexempt employees, interns are guaranteed at least minimum wage for all hours worked and overtime pay when applicable. Depending on where and how long they are employed, interns may be entitled to statutory benefits, such as health care coverage or paid sick leave. Employers should also review their voluntary benefits policies, like vacation and holiday pay, to determine whether exclusions will apply to their paid interns.

While it may seem tempting for some employers to treat interns as a subcategory of employee, they are employees just the same. Ideally, an internship will be mutually beneficial to both the employer and the intern. The employer gains valuable talent that results in a brand ambassador and possibly even a long-term employee in the future. The intern walks away with new skills and experience that will make them more marketable to potential employers.

If you want to know more about internships or have other HR questions, we’d love to help! Give us a call or send an e-mail. We’re also available by chat. It’s one of the most valued benefits of SHRM membership!

SHRM’s Ask an Advisor service is a member benefit through which SHRM’s HR Knowledge Advisors share guidance, real-life personal and professional experiences, and resources to assist members with their HR-related inquiries. We receive questions from HR professionals on a wide range of topics from paid internships to ADA reasonable accommodations.


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