Jamie Herzlich Newsday columnist Jamie Herzlich

Herzlich writes the Small Business column in Newsday.

If your business has a summer internship program, you know how valuable it is to have an extra set of hands around the office.

Interns can be a great asset, particularly for a small business with a limited budget to take on new staff.

But there's a fine line between an intern and an employee, and business owners must be cognizant of the tasks they assign interns to ensure they're not crossing that line, say experts.

"The real issue arises when you have unpaid interns and treat them like employees," says Kimberly Malerba, chair of employment law at Ruskin Moscou Faltischek PC in Uniondale.

Businesses must give careful consideration to the tasks they assign their interns, or the interns could be deemed employees and would therefore be owed wages, she says.

The U.S. Department of Labor has strict guidelines, says Malerba. (See nwsdy.li/summer.)

In general, the intern shouldn't be assigned tasks that a paid employee would otherwise perform, she notes. For example, putting an intern in a key sales position wouldn't be wise.

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"Interns are supposed to get training or acquire a new skill or other advanced knowledge through the internship," says Malerba. "The benefit should inure to the intern, not immediately to the company."

Focus on projects. When assessing what tasks would be a good fit, think of projects and tasks that have a beginning, middle and end, advises Dreama Lee, co-founder of Blaine, Washington-based InternProf its.com, a resource that helps entrepreneurs find, hire and manage interns. The intern should be able to complete the task during the internship, or at least get it to the point where another intern could take it over, she explains.

Interns can provide a fresh set of eyes, so you might want them to dig deeper into the operations of the business and audit certain procedures or processes, she says.

Perhaps they can make recommendations for social media, such as researching how other companies are using LinkedIn, says Michelle Benjamin, CEO of Middletown, New York-based Benjamin Enterprises, which specializes in talent management.

Avoid having interns do front-line tasks or those direct-line tasks that could impact the company or customer base, she says, or giving them tasks that deal with sensitive or confidential information.

Focus on the interns' education. Interns should be doing "more evaluation, support, coming up with suggestions," says Benjamin, who uses interns in her own business.

They shouldn't be treated as personal assistants running errands all day, notes Jonathan Ivanoff, associate director of internships at Adelphi University in Garden City.

This may have been more prevalent years ago than today.

"Nowadays, most employers are more careful," says Ivanoff. "We're setting our standards higher, and I think the expectations have changed."

Match talent to tasks. When assigning tasks, consider the interns' past experience, maturity level, initiative and creativity, he suggests. Also, try to tailor the tasks to incorporate a learning component that ties in with whatever discipline they're studying, says Ivanoff. And be willing to provide the necessary mentorship/supervision.

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"The intern is there to learn," says Ivanoff. "They're not going to learn on their own."

Business computer services and support provider 2M Technologies Inc. in Hauppauge understands this and has its interns report directly to the president of the company, says Rose Morales, vice president of administration. They also work with software engineers, the director of managed services and the administrative staff.

"There is an investment of time, but we make the time," she notes.

"We give them a sampling of everything," says Morales, noting the company, for the most part, offers paid internships.