Student Interns: Free Labor or Unnecessary Risk?
We all had to start somewhere. Offering an unpaid internship to a local student seems like a nice way to give back to someone looking to gain valuable work experience and get a foot in the door of their chosen profession. And it’s certainly no hardship when your practice gets some free labor in the process, right? To many dentists and their office managers, this sounds like a great deal all around.
If only it were quite so simple! Before you agree to hire an unpaid intern, you need to be certain that you comply with a specific set of legal requirements to avoid having to pay them as an employee. The Department of Labor (DOL) has identified six criteria, all of which must be met in order to allow a trainee or student to perform work without pay. So if you are thinking about or have recently hired an unpaid intern, make sure you are in compliance with all of the following.
Six DOL Criteria to Allow Interns to Perform Work without Pay
1. The internship should be similar to the training provided in an academic or vocational setting.
2. The training received by the intern must be for the intern’s own benefit.
3. The interns can’t be used to replace paid employees.
4. The training must be general, not for the immediate advantage of the business, and it may even impede operations.
5. Both parties agree that no job is promised at the end of the internship.
6. Both the employer and the intern must agree that the internship will be unpaid.
This is an area of enforcement that has been growing in recent years, so it’s better to be safe now than to find that you owe an entire summer’s worth of back pay, plus legal expenses. If all of the above criteria are not met, the intern is considered an employee and thus entitled to be paid for all time worked, at no less than minimum wage.
Before Your Intern Starts: The Internship Agreement
The best course of action is to get an internship agreement in writing. Most colleges will have their own. If you receive an agreement like this in the course of arranging an internship, be sure to review it carefully, and don’t be afraid to request changes. (The colleges are usually willing to make adjustments.) If you don’t receive one, contact the school your intern attends to find out if they have a standard agreement. Or make sure that you have your own agreement that you can then send to the school for review and approval.
In addition to abiding by the DOL requirements, your internship agreement must clearly state all of the following:
• The intern is not an employee of the practice, and there is no guarantee of employment at any time during or after the internship.
• You have the right to remove the intern with or without cause (it’s okay if the college retains the right to review your decision, but make sure you can get the intern out of your office during any such review).
• The college or university is liable for any negligence on behalf of the intern, and will indemnify the practice against any claims.
• The college will be responsible for any discipline needed.
• The intern must sign your office’s confidentiality policy.
You Are the Host, Not the Employer
Even though the new student intern needs to sign your (legally compliant) confidentiality policy to protect your office and the patient data it handles, remember that you are NOT their employer. If there is a problem or if disciplinary measures are required, report it to the college for them to handle. This maintains the proper relationship between you and your intern, and supports the fact that this internship is a part of their overall studies and training. (Of course, while disciplinary measures are not your jurisdiction, you do need to make sure your new intern has completed all appropriate HIPAA training before they come into contact with any of your patients’ Protected Health Information.)
Also, keep in mind that lawsuits involving unfair treatment of interns have been big news in recent years – especially those cases in which the interns did not meet the DOL’s requirements and should have been paid. In fact, a few states have started introducing legislation that specifically protects interns from discrimination and/or gives them employment rights. So if you have a question or don’t know the requirements for your state, make sure to find out. (You can call CEDR if you have any questions: 866-414-6056.)
The takeaway for hosting a student intern in your practice is simply to make sure you hit all DOL requirements on the head, have an internship agreement in place, and fulfill anything else specific to your state.
Under the right conditions, having an intern join your team for a season or two can be a rewarding endeavor for all parties involved. Plus, when your lucky stars align just right, you may even identify some fabulous future hires that you’d love to employ after they graduate.