This guide provides an overview of selected federal legal standards and requirements for farmers who have or want to have interns and volunteers. This area of law carries a level of uncertainty. With this uncertainty, farmers have the opportunity to strategically choose the approach they want to take.
Farmers who have a high level of adversity to risk may want to take a conservative approach. This basically means either following the DOL’s strict criteria for having interns OR treating their interns as though they were “employees” and following all applicable federal and state employment laws— including minimum wage and workers’ compensation requirements. Farmers who are willing to take on some degree of risk may choose to follow the more lenient approach taken by the Black Swan court. Regardless, farmers who choose to have a non-employee intern will want to be sure to emphasize the education dimension. A good option is to partner with a college or academic institution and offer credit. However, this alone is likely not enough to have a legally sound internship. In addition, farmers who choose to have unpaid interns will want to be sure to keep accurate records of the hours worked and activities performed by the interns as well as the curriculum and training provided. This will provide proof of the legitimacy of the program should a dispute or enforcement action arise.
As for volunteers, the law is pretty clear that for-profit businesses are not permitted to have unpaid volunteers. To play it safe, for-profit farms may want to consider following all applicable federal and state employment laws for volunteers who work on their farm. This may include carrying workers’ compensation for these volunteers as well as paying minimum wage unless the farm falls within federal and state agricultural labor exemptions.
This guide also discusses some basic guidelines for paying workers in-kind wages. Farmers who have or are thinking about having worker shares or otherwise paying their workers in-kind should review and follow the Paying In- Kind Wages section of this guide in detail.
Additional resources are referred to throughout this guide. These resources offer more thorough details on specific legal issues. In addition, Farm Commons has a number of state specific resources on employment law. Be sure to check out if one is available for your state along with many more resources on employment law and other legal issues that are relevant to sustainable farmers. All of Farm Commons’ resources are available for free download at www.farmcommons.org.