June 13, 2013

Unpaid internships in jeopardy after court ruling

The Associated Press

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Eric Glatt, a Georgetown Law student, worked as an unpaid intern for Fox Searchlight Pictures on production of the 2010 movie "Black Swan." He performed basic administrative work such as organizing filing cabinets, tracking purchase orders, making copies, drafting cover letters and running errands.

AP

Glatt, the lead plaintiff, lamented the fact that unpaid internships have become so normal "people do it without blinking an eye."

"It's just become a form of institutionalized wage theft," he said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters. Glatt has an MBA from Case Western Reserve University and said he is currently studying law at Georgetown University Law Center.

In another lawsuit filed Thursday, two former interns who worked at W Magazine and The New Yorker sued parent company Conde Nast Publications for allegedly failing to pay them the minimum wage. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in New York, seeks class action status on behalf of other interns who worked in the fashion, accessories and fine jewelry departments at Conde Nast magazines. Conde Nast spokesman Joe Libonati said the company's policy was not to comment on pending litigation.

Yet another prominent lawsuit is challenging unpaid internships at Hearst Magazines. Last month, a federal judge in New York declined to let the interns pursue their case against Hearst as a class action.

Camille Olson, an attorney who represents employers in workplace litigation, said the Fox decision was just one judge's opinion that may be overturned on appeal. But she said many employers are now "taking a harder look at the issue."

"There's a lot more interest in making sure intern programs are structured correctly or, if an employer doesn't want to have any risk, then paying minimum wage," Olson said.

She said many employers believe they don't need to pay interns because they offer counseling and mentoring similar to what a teacher might offer in a vocational program.

"They view themselves as actually spending a lot of resources on these programs," Olson said.

But Yamada, the law professor, said the growth of unpaid internships unfairly leaves out students and graduates from lower economic levels who can't afford to work for free.

"If you're a college kid that has to make some money over the summer, maybe you go work for a food store instead of applying for that fancy internship in the entertainment or arts industry," he said. There's nothing wrong with a tryout program that lets them scout out the talent, but they should at least pay minimum wage."

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