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Assuming That an Intern Is Unpaid Labor for Your Photography Business Could Be a Big Mistake

If you’re a full-time commercial photographer operating a small business, then you may think an intern is a great way to avoid hiring and paying a true employee. You could find yourself in trouble with the U.S. Department of Labor, however, if you make this assumption.

Offering an internship program to photographer students is certainly an excellent method for giving back to the industry/profession that has provided you with opportunities when you were a young, aspiring and often struggling photographer.

As the U.S. economy continues to recover slowly from the recession, some for-profit business owners may be taking conscious or unconscious advantage of extremely high unemployment among the young adult age group from which most interns come. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, most unpaid internships are likely to be illegal. In reality, there are only a few instances when a business owner/employer is not obligated to pay an intern and still be in compliance with labor laws.

To protect yourself from stiff penalties and other sanctions, determine if you following these guidelines from the Department’s Wage and Hour Division.

·         An unpaid intern may assist you in the operation of your business, but what he or she does must be similar to what he or she would learn in an academic environment. For example, if an intern wouldn’t be taught business phone answering techniques in an educational setting, then you can’t ask him or her to answer your phones without paying him or her for that time. If he or she assists you in erecting and placing lights for a shoot and, therefore, is learning those techniques as part of the “job,” as they would in a classroom, then payment is not required.

·         Whatever training an intern receives from you must be of benefit to him or her, not to you.

·         You can’t deliberately “hire” an intern, and not pay him or her, to replace a regular paid employee to save money. The employee guides the intern and participates in his or her training opportunities.

·         When you train an intern in any specific photography or business activity or task, you must pay him or her if you receive any benefit from his or her completion of those tasks. For example, you train and ask an intern to make follow-up sales calls to prospective customers. That is legitimate only if you pay him or her for that task. On occasion, legitimate unpaid tasks you may ask an intern to perform could actually impede your operations or delay revenue production. Often, the test is that the intern’s opportunity to learn supersedes the needs of your business.

·         You can’t promise an intern a future job in lieu of paying him or her for tasks he or she performs that helps to generate revenue for your business.

·         You stipulate in advance, and the intern agrees, that he or she will not be paid for training at your business.

To protect yourself, first confer with your attorney to gain his or her perspective about unpaid or paid interns. Second, develop a documented intern program and agreement that your attorney reviews before offering any internships. Interns must read and agree to the “contract” before they qualify to become an intern at your photography business.

If you’re a photography student seeking an internship with a commercial photography business, then ask to see its documented intern program and assist on a signed agreement.

The information in this PhotographyTalk.com article is general in nature.  PhotographyTalk.com does not provide legal or human resources advice or imply legal or labor strategies for photography business owners. They should seek such advice from qualified professionals.

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