Check Legal Status on Use of Volunteers and Interns

SPIN’s business model does not rely on unpaid help, though it does tap into the “inhouse” labor pool of friends and family now and then. So the legal status of volunteers and interns in the US should not have have any operational effect on SPIN-scale farms there. But the culture is such that more and more people want to work on farms for their own benefit, and some US SPIN farmers may be welcoming them without realizing what they are  opening themselves up to.  This post is meant to provide cautionary guidance.  

Courtesy of Andy P., Foggy Hill Farm, Jaffrey NH

The legal status of volunteer and interns is a hot topic right now. Much of the issues within states are dealing with laws and how they define an intern vs. apprentice vs. volunteer vs. employee or contractor. Most states do not legally recognize apprentices as a class and so they fall under the definition of an intern or employee.

An intern as defined must meet 6 criteria that includes having an educational curriculum and that an intern’s work does not displace the work of an employee. For example, I recently heard that interns selling at a farmers market must be considered an employee and therefore be paid minimum wage. This creates a gray area as this is a great educational opportunity for an intern, but the counter argument has been made that the farmer is utilizing free labor and is therefore not up to par with labor laws and the IRS. In addition, states look at how many “man-days” are used during a quarter and whether or not the farm is exempt. For example, in NH, the man-days are 500, and any work done on the farm, even if it is one hour, counts as a single day. For the IRS, tax exemptions are allowed only if a worker is paid less than $150.

So the issue can be very confusing, and every farmer needs to understand labor laws and how farm labor is legally classified in their state. This includes federal, state, and local laws. In addition, it also relates to how a business is legally structured as well as creating/revisiting the goals/objectives of the farm to help in determining what type of worker is best suited for the farm and whether or not the farm can manage the associated risks involved in hosting that type of worker.