By Teresa Welsh |
Could the unpaid internship see its day of reckoning? A recent slew of lawsuits suggests that many for-profit companies may soon need to pay up or face legal action.
Former interns on the film “Black Swan” have brought a class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures to demand back pay and damages for their unpaid work. The plaintiffs maintain that their stint on set violated U.S. Department of Labor guidelines, which say an internship must be to the benefit of the intern, not the employer. A New York state federal district judge ruled in favor of the former interns last year, noting that “Searchlight received the benefits of their unpaid work” and the internship program violated New York state minimum wage laws.
“I hope that this sends a very loud and clear message to employers and to students doing these internships, and to the colleges that are cooperating in creating this large pool of free labor,” lead plaintiff Eric Glatt told reporters. “For most for-profit employers, this is illegal.”
Hollywood is not the only industry under fire for its practices. Last year, former interns settled a suit against PBS host Charlie Rose, receiving about $1,100 in back pay for a maximum of 10 weeks of work. ProPublica, an investigative journalism non-profit, is documenting intern lawsuits brought against Hearst Corporation, Condé Nast, Warner Music Group and a host of others.
Students, who make up the majority of unpaid interns, have also called on colleges and universities to address the issue, and some have responded. New York University now requires companies to electronically verify that their unpaid internships meet Labor Department standards before posting them online. Columbia University announced it will no longer give students academic credit for internships, “which mostly functioned as a fig leaf for employers,” writes the New York Times editorial board.
Stephen J. Friedman, president of Pace University, sees Columbia’s latest decision as a part of “a disturbing trend toward policies and actions that fundamentally threaten the internship, a vital career path for millions of students nationwide.” Friedman says “properly structured” internships provide critical learning opportunities and a leg up in the working world, “whether interns are paid or not.”
So far, the federal government isn’t prioritizing intern pay either. The Labor Department, which has the power to investigate unpaid internships proactively, is often waiting for interns to file complaints, reports ProPublica. Even then, the majority of federal dollars and hours are going toward industries with a history of wage exploitation.
"Our investigators focus on industries where historically we have found high incidences of violations and where the most vulnerable workers are employed — industries such as construction, janitorial, agriculture, and restaurants,” said a department spokeswoman. “That will continue to be our focus."
White House internships and a majority of congressional internships are unpaid.
So should unpaid internships be illegal? Here is the Debate Club's take:
is director of state projects and a senior fellow with the R Street Institute.