It is hard to meet the legal requirements for an unpaid internship. This is a big deal because more than half of college student internships are unpaid, according to a 2012 Intern Bridge survey, as are many post-college internships.

Farms often hire “interns” to help with summer labor needs and pay them with food, housing and a stipend. Is this legal? Of course the answer is “it depends…”

Intern or employee? How to stay on the right side of the law? Some farmers have opted to hire their “interns” as employees, and pay the minimum wage, federal taxes, state payroll taxes, workers compensation and unemployment taxes. Farmers are allowed to deduct the value of meals and lodging from employees’ wages BEFORE taxes. This reduces the total amount that employees are taxed on, and also the amount that the farmer ends up paying the employee.

On-farm mentors play an important role in helping to train the next generation of farmers. Good mentors see themselves more as teachers than as employers. By hosting “trainees” on their farms, they impart a wide range of farming knowledge and skills in exchange for needed help on the farm. Their “trainees” (often called “interns” or “apprentices”) see themselves as students and may willingly accept little or no money for the work they do, viewing their education as sufficient compensation. However, with rare exception, the law views on-farm mentors as employers and their “interns” or “apprentices” as employees. Because labor law does not recognize a farm mentor/trainee relationship, mentors who want to comply must unravel a tangle of regulations to try to understand what is required of them.

Farming Internships: Vital or Illegal? The Answer is Both.

As it turns out, to qualify as legal, an unpaid internship has to meet six criteria laid out by the U.S. Department of Labor. Farm internships meet a few of the criteria like “The training is for the benefit of the trainee” and “The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period.” But then there are two that are hard to ignore. The first is that “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees.” The second is “The trainees do not displace regular employees.” It would be one thing if an intern hangs around the farm for a few hours a week, but it would be hard to argue an intern working every day from dawn ‘til dusk, driving tractors, handling animals, and picking produce isn’t replacing an employee.

Free Internship & Employment Law Workshop for Farms and Food-Based Businesses

January 8, 2016 • Craftsbury Common, VT • Farms and food-based businesses look to hire interns for a number of reasons, such as wanting to pass skills on to the next generation. However, there are some very serious legal considerations every agricultural and food business must be aware of before developing internships.

To address these concerns, Sterling College is organizing a free two hour workshop on Monday, February 1, in the Vermont Tech Enterprise Center meeting room on the Vermont Tech campus discussing Internship & Employment Law for Farms and Food-Based Businesses. The workshop features a question-and-answer period with Kelly Connolley, the Assistant District Director of the Federal Department of Labor. Connolley will answer questions about state and federal employment law regarding internships and other employment structures.

“This is a great opportunity to have your individual questions addressed,” said Louise Calderwood, Sterling College adjunct faculty member in Sustainable Agriculture. “Attendees can have the session tailored to their individual needs if they send their questions ahead of time.”

Participation is limited to 15 attendees. To reserve a spot, email [email protected]. Funding for this workshop is provided through USDA Rural Development and Sterling College.

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