Early in my career I did quite a few unpaid internships. While I would have loved to have been paid, I actually viewed them all as great experiences that ultimately paid off in the long run.
Well, apparently that is not the case now, as unpaid interns have turned to lawsuits in an attempt to get paid immediately. It started when a federal district court judge in New York ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures, a film distribution company, should have compensated two unpaid production interns for the 2010 movie Black Swan. According to the judge, “Searchlight received the benefits of their unpaid work, which otherwise would have required paid employees.” This first suit opened the floodgates for more interns.
Then, on June 13th, a former intern for W magazine and another for The New Yorker filed a lawsuit against publisher Conde Naste claiming they had been paid less than $1 an hour. On June 17th a former Atlantic Records intern filed a lawsuit against Warner Music Group citing unpaid wages for office work in 2007 and 2008. Even back in 2011, eight former magazine interns filed a lawsuit against Hearst, but the case was dismissed this past May because the judge denied its class-action status. Those interns have requested an appeal.
In light of these lawsuits, Conde Naste announced in late October that it has decided to nix its internship program, which offered a $550 stipend per semester. Even PBS talk show host Charlie Rose agreed to settle a class-action brought last year on behalf of 190 unpaid interns who worked on his program between March 2006 and October 2012.
So what exactly does this mean for other employers? Companies in the U.S. can legally hire unpaid interns as long as they follow six U.S. Department of Labor guidelines under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The law says that interns cannot “displace regular employees.” It also stipulates that the employer that provides the training must derive “no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.”
Quite a few lawyers have said that in light of these and other lawsuits, employers need to take caution to not open themselves up to expensive lawsuits. And if you think I am kidding there is even a website: www.unpaidinternslawsuit.com. This has all the potential to be a gold mine for the trial lawyers.
Our country has got to stop this madness. CALA’s whole mantra is “Create Jobs, Not Lawsuits.” With trial lawyers going after unpaid internships too, it looks like they’re trying to make it harder to employ anyone at any level.