Hiring an Employee – My Experiences

For years, people out there have been trying to figure out how to get an intern or a college student to work with them for photography – I’ve seen lots of people looking for advice on forums and in Facebook groups. Or maybe you’ve tried virtual assistants or outsourcing to a big box company and it isn’t working. Hiring an employee seems so daunting and no one is telling you how to do it. I know this seemed insurmountable when I was first looking last year for an office assistant – so I wanted to share what I learned.

I did the research on my own – I’m not a lawyer, I’m not in HR – I am not giving you legal advice. I’m just going to tell you what I did and how I did it. I hesitate a little to do this because – it’s giving away a little of my competitive advantage after all! But I know as the wedding season gets underway, it’s hard to keep up with the workload, so I made a change.

Let me talk a little bit about my business. I started it officially in 2010 and was doing about 23-25 weddings a year, spread out throughout the year in Florida. My late husband was amazing and would help me whenever he could with bookkeeping, packaging, dropping things at the post office, helping with my website at the time – he even assisted me a few times on weddings.

I don’t think you can overestimate the amount of help having a spouse (or business partner for those doing the partnership thing) brings. They are a sounding board, an emotional support, a logistical support, a second pair of hands. I can say this because I was widowed in 2012 – so I’ve been on both sides of business – both a bit of the husband and wife type team and the widowed lady who had never even had a second shooter before.

In 2013, I shot 38 weddings, moved twice, and still did all my own editing. And I was a year into widowhood, which is obviously a very challenging time. In 2014, I shot 39 weddings squeezed between April and November. And I did all my own editing. I was long overdue for help for my mental health. Still, it took me until 2015 to bring on an editor and 2017 before I brought on an office assistant!

Enter a concept most photographers are familiar with – outsourcing editing!

There are any ways to outsource your editing. I use a private editor – Amy with Skybird Photo. She also culls for me which is literally a huge timesaver. If I’m going to cull – I might as well edit. Amy has her own business and she invoices me once a month for all the work. And she’s great – I highly recommend the private editor route.

You also can outsource your bookkeeping, album design, taxes, social media – I do everything else in house except for yearly taxes, legal advice, and payroll because. Seriousness.

Enter – independent contractors for very occasional second shooting

Basically, I use only people who own their own business, who own their own equipment, who have insurance, who are not barred from working with kids in any way, who have their own worker’s comp or are exempt from it (as the only employee of their business), who have more than one client, and who have a separate business checking account. You need to talk to your lawyer or accountant about this. I give them a W-9 for them to fill out before working, they sign an independent contractor agreement with me, I give them a check at each wedding, and they are issued a 1099 at the end of the year by January 31st. They are responsible for their own taxes.

Independent contractors sound great! Why not just get someone to help out in the office every day and give them cash or a check and let them sort the taxes out?

Because that’s NOT an independent contractor. There are lots of rules as to what an independent contractor is and a person who works just for you using your equipment on the days and hours you tell them to be there doesn’t meet those requirements. That’s an employee.

So most people just stop right there. They figure they can’t get an employee – it’s too hard. Too expensive. Feels risky somehow or like a big company move?

Your competitors have help. Think about that – your competitors have some kind of help – maybe they are in a two man/woman team. Maybe their spouse can do all the laundry and answer emails so they have fresh clothes AND fast responses. Maybe they have a nanny or utilize daycare and you’re surrounded by little ones parked in front of the TV while you try to fix that album order. Maybe “they” are outsourcing everything else from grocery delivery to yard work to cooking to cleaning to snow shoveling that driveway. Maybe they have very helpful parents or siblings. Maybe their mom lives with them to help out or they are part of a strong social network from church or their neighborhood. Maybe their teenage son or daughter acts as an assistant for weddings and does the post office runs. My own dad, for example – he helps me with my books one night every week. My sister has occasionally blogged for me and is also my wedding day assistant/second photographer.

You can’t do it all yourself long-term and still do it well. It takes a village as the saying goes. Give yourself grace – you can’t meal prep and go shovel the driveway and answer all the emails, then fix the broken dishwasher, delivery a gallery, workout, clean your house, run a load of laundry, maintain social relationships with family and friends, sleep eight hours a night, floss, and have an Instagram account that’s off the chain while still blogging your last wedding and paying the electric bill. (Not to mention any other responsibilities you may have to family or volunteering, etc!) You can do it all for a time – but eventually you need to GROW and not just tread water – and to do that, you need time.

In this Instagram and social media world – the pressure is on to make everything look easy and effortless and casual and #tooblessedtobestressed. But if you are not in that season of life – if you feel you have a lot on your shoulders with running a business and life – it can feel anything but effortless! Your competitors have help and maybe you should too. And often the only way to get help is going to be to pay for it – family and friends are wonderful but at some point, they may not want to do album deliveries all over town or submit galleries for publishing for you!

Some people will say to only get an employee after you’ve outsourced absolutely everything possible, but I find an employee to be less expensive than ALL those services out (someone blogging for you, someone entering in all your receipts for bookkeeping, someone doing social media for you, a company that designs albums for you) there that want your money AND I thrive on an office space and someone to basically adult babysit me – it’s more of an office type environment and a real job with set hours. I love that structure.

Hiring an Employee

Again, I am not a lawyer (and don’t play one on TV). You should contact one. I will only share what I did.

1. Firstly, because of the way I have my business structured, I already get a paycheck every two weeks like I was working for someone else. You can do your own payroll, yes – but I don’t because I like someone else handling the taxes and direct deposit. I do all my own bookkeeping but not payroll. So firstly, make sure your tax situation is correct and get payroll set up. I offer direct deposit. My accountant also emails every two weeks to get my payroll numbers for the week. If you’re local to Pittsburgh, I’d be happy to give you a recommendation for a payroll company! Run the numbers on how much help you can afford.

2. Decide what the employee will be doing. Pay for a consultation with an employment lawyer – mine helped me decide where in my house/office they could work/making sure these things were allowed (you can’t open a Target in your basement), making sure I was being inclusive to those with disabilities, should they drive my car or their own, etc. A very small business doesn’t have to do ALL of this legally, I believe, but I wanted to be inclusive and supportive and fair to all. Keep this lawyer on an as-needed basis just in case something comes up.

3. Write your job description. I used Textio to help ensure I wasn’t putting any biases in there, discouraging certain applicants, etc.

I chose to post my job description on FB – kept it lighthearted. Go through all the applicants, interview them. Be fair in your hiring practices and remember you should not ask questions about family status, etc. Also, time is valuable for everyone – don’t have a phone and two in-person interviews for a part-time job. Be upfront about the pay. Think about who you want to offer the job to – someone who is a photog? Someone who is not? Where are you weak – in business, in marketing?

4. Speaking of pay…I took a page out of Dave Ramsey. I do base plus commission. My office assistant (not wedding day assistant) gets hourly pay plus 10% commission on the gross total before taxes on any order she sells/fulfills for me. This way – she can earn more pay and I can earn more pay if she sells an album or album upgrade or guestbook or canvases or prints. I also offer mileage reimbursement for using her own car. My wedding day assistant gets hourly plus a split of tips. Make sure to figure out the amount of hours they will work prior to the official signing of the offer letter.

5. Offer the person the job in writing including duties and have them sign so there are no employment disputes. Now the logistics…

-Have them fill out appropriate tax forms you get from your accountant or from online. W-9 will be needed, etc. They also will need to present their ID and a blank check for direct deposit. Every two weeks I submit via online or email how many hours the employee worked, their reimbursement for mileage, and their commissions earned. Then the accountant does the rest.

-I made an emergency contact form for my assistant with all her info just in case.

-Print out mileage sheets and timesheets for them – where you record the hours worked, commissions, miles driven – plenty of good ones online.

– Health insurance – I don’t offer it. Something to consider for sure as well as other benefits such as maternity leave.

– Insurance – you have to have workman’s comp on your employees in PA. It is based on payroll, not number of employees. It is not cheap. It is worth it. Let your business insurance know you have an employee as well.

-Retirement plan – I have an SEP IRA I put $ into some years. There are rules – but basically, what percentage I put in for myself, after so many years, I ALSO have to put that percentage (not dollar amount) in for my employees as it is a company contribution. Talk to your retirement pro – this is for SEP IRAs (the self-employed 401k’s essentially). So basically, you cannot set up a retirement plan, give yourself super high contributions and give your employees nothing. Don’t be that boss. SEP IRA requirements are (from the IRS website):

Employees must be included in the SEP plan if they have:

  • attained age 21;
  • worked for your business in at least 3 of the last 5 years;
  • received at least $600 in compensation (in 2016 and 2017) from your business for the year.

You can be nice and have less stringent requirements than that – like you can say they can contribute immediately if you want. Just know that if you are using an SEP IRA – you gotta contribute for them too. Only fair.

-post the work rules and signage as required

– Get to work! 🙂

Now maybe you are thinking this sounds complicated – worker’s comp (available thru companies that give you biz insurance), retirement plans, commission structure, taxes, payroll, employment lawyers… Maybe you are thinking you will just get a free intern.

I’ve chosen not to go that route because I find the rules for unpaid internships very strict! I’ve been an intern and I know it is a learning experience, but things are different and trending towards more ethical employment now than when I was young!  ( All of the following information comes from a Fair Labor Standards Fact Sheet on Internships)

“The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

  1. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  2. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  3. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  4. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and

The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.”

I think a good example of an appropriate internship would be student teaching. The same amount of employees are retained, the school doesn’t make a profit off the student teacher, etc. Not to plagiarize, but a great example I once heard that really drove it home for me was about a train company. The students could learn about trains there. They were allowed to drive the trains around the train yard – but they could never do any actual deliveries using the trains because then the company is deriving profit from their work. They would just practice. So for example, if someone wanted to just shadow me at a wedding, then they could use my computer to edit their images and I could help them with that, and they could receive feedback – fine. But I can’t deliver any of their photos to the client or have them doing filing or running errands because that benefits me. I also sat down and thought about how some people might be wonderful and deserving on an internship – but they are not in a privileged economic situation – they HAVE to work to support themselves or their family or pay for tuition in the fall. Ultimately, an unpaid intern was not going to be a good fit for me – so a paid employee it is!

I hope this helps you out! Becoming an employer has been a great help to me and taught me a lot about myself – I learned so much from the process of hiring my first employee!

My final advice is – don’t be afraid, do your research, consult pros, you got this!



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