Are Unpaid Internships Illegal? Dylan Matthews
June 13, 2013

Unpaid internships* are increasingly a fact of life for college students. The National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 55 percent of the class of 2012 had an internship or co-op during their time in college. Almost half of those 47 percent were unpaid. A third of internships at for-profit companies were unpaid.

Depending on how you look at it, this is either massive exploitation of young people by powerful corporations which worsens inequality, or a valuable opportunity for on-the-job training at lower cost than a degree or certificate at a college or university.

But whatever your moral leanings, a judge on Tuesday confirmed what intern advocates have been alleging for years: a lot of these programs are illegal.

Judge William Pauley, who sits on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, ruled that Fox Searchlight’s use of interns in the production of the movies Black Swan ” and 500 Days of Summer ” violated minimum wage and overtime laws, and that those interns can file a class action against the studio. He concluded:

They worked as paid employees work, providing an immediate advantage to their employer and performing low-level tasks not requiring specialized training. The benefits they may have received such as knowledge of how a production or accounting office functions or references for future jobs are the results of simply having worked as any other employee works, not of internships designed to be uniquely educational to the interns and of little utility to the employer. They received nothing approximating the education they would receive in an academic setting or vocational school.

The tests being hinted at there of whether an internship provides valuable training and whether it benefits the firm or the intern more reflect the reasoning of a 2010 fact sheet put out by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Divison, which enforces these laws. That fact sheet sets up six criteria to determine if an internship is legal or not…

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Pauley cites that fact sheet, reproduces all six points, and then proceeds to determine if the internships in this case satisfied all six requirements. Perhaps the most important result of the ruling is that it treats that fact sheet, effectively, as a binding interpretation of federal law around internships.

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Some employment attorneys think that move is a mistake. You’ve got to consider a lot of different factors including these six factors, ” Camille Olson, a partner at Seyfarth and Shaw who frequently defends companies in wage and hour cases.

A better analysis, she argues, can be found in Xuedan Wang v. The Hearst Corporation, a case in which Wang, a former unpaid intern at Harper’s Bazaar, tried to put together a class action on behalf of the Heart Corporation’s unpaid interns. The judge in that case, Harold Baer (also of the Southern District of New York), didn’t discount the six-factors in the fact sheet […] but also argued that one must look at the totality of circumstances. ”

Baer ruled that Wang couldn’t file a class action, […] That is, unlike Pauley, he declined to rule, without a trial, that Wang and her prospective co-plaintiffs were employees covered by minimum wage and overtime laws.

The trial has been adjourned indefinitely, though Juno Turner, one of Wang’s attorneys at the firm Outten & Golden, which also represents the interns in the Fox case, confirms that they’re planning on going forward with a jury trial. All of which reinforces Olson’s point that Pauley is just just one judge, in just one district, and it’s hard to predict what appeals court judges will rule on any of these cases.

As you can imagine, intern advocates disagree vehemently with Olson’s suggestion that the reasoning in the Pauley ruling was weak. ” I think the reasoning will stand up strongly and clearly, ” Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation ” and a critic of unpaid internships, says. That includes, he continues, the reasoning that for-profit companies’ interns are employees entitled to back pay, and that they constitute a class that can file a class action suit.

They also differ on which kinds of firms are breaking these laws. Perlin argues that even non-profit firms which are allowed to have unpaid volunteers ” are likely in violation of the law if they have actual unpaid interns. Just because you’re working for somebody who’s been classified as a 501(c)3 doesn’t mean you don’t have to treat them like workers, ” he says, though he concedes, Interns would have the burden of proving they’re not volunteers. Somebody is going to have to step up and make the case. ” A logical place to start, he says, would be D.C. Congress has exempted its own interns from the Fair Labor Standards Act, ” he says. That’s something waiting to be addressed. ”

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*Full disclosure: I’ve had three unpaid summer internships in my life, two at nonprofits and one at a for-profit that hasn’t made a profit in years. The Washington Post pays its interns, who are great.