The Internship

Interns have a way of making headlines.  Most recently, the communications director for New York City mayoral candidate (and chronic sexter) Anthony Weiner lashed out (during a media interview of all places) at a former campaign intern, saying that she “sucked” at her job, threatening to sue her, and calling her a series of vulgar epithets.  The communication director’s outrageously offensive remarks came after the intern, Olivia Nuzzi, wrote an “insider account” for the New York Daily News that criticized Weiner and the campaign.

And who could forget White House intern Monica Lewinsky, who became a household name in the wake of revelations that President Clinton had an extra-marital affair with the 22-year-old during his first presidential term.

And if the news headlines aren’t enough you can turn to Hollywood.  The stars of “Wedding Crashers,” Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, play techie interns in this year’s movie “The Internship.”

But recently, interns have made headlines for an entirely different reason:  standing up for their right to be paid for their work.  In many industries, it’s standard practice to rely heavily on the labor of unpaid interns, often college students looking for experience in the field.  Many employers justify not paying their interns on the theory that the internships are primarily for the benefit of the intern, not the company, or that the interns are getting college credit in place of wages.  Researchers estimate that one million undergraduates in the US serve as interns each year, and a full half of those internships are unpaid.  The practice is a good deal for employers, of course, but it can lead to the exploitation of workers – not only the interns who aren’t getting paid for their labor, but also the low-wage workers who can’t afford to work for free, and may be displaced by unpaid interns.

Two interns, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, decided to stand up and challenge the status quo.  Glatt and Footman were production interns for Fox Searchlight, working on the movie “Black Swan” (which went on to gross over $400 million for Fox).  Their work consisted of basic tasks like filing, tracking purchase orders, making photocopies, and running errands – work that otherwise would have been done by paid employees.  Glatt and Footman filed a federal lawsuit against Fox, asking the court to declare that they were “employees” of Fox Searchlight and failure to pay them violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

In a decision handed down in June, the New York court agreed with the interns, rejecting arguments that internships are exempt from wage and hour laws just because the interns get school credit or beneficial work experience.  Adopting US Department of Labor guidelines, the court said that internships can be unpaid only if a number of criteria are met:  the internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment; the experience is for the benefit of the intern; the intern doesn’t displace regular employees; the employer gets no immediate benefit from the intern’s work; and the employer and intern both understand the intern isn’t entitled to wages. 

The court found that Glatt and Footman didn’t fall into the narrow exception for unpaid trainees – instead, they were really just employees with a different title.  As a result, the Fair Labor Standards Act requires that they be paid minimum wage and overtime, just like any other employee.

“All these employers think if they slap the title intern on the job description, suddenly they don’t have to pay for it,” Glatt said after the judge’s decision came down.  After this ruling, many employers will think twice before slapping on that title.

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