Swansong for Unpaid Internships?

abc.net.au-Law Report Damien Carrick
June 25, 2013

Have you ever worked as an unpaid intern?

For years it’s been considered a good way to get your ‘foot in the door’ of certain industries. Now the internship faces a public and legal backlash.

Two interns who worked on the Academy Award-winning film Black Swan have successfully sued Fox Searchlight for illegally employing them.

Excerpt from Transcript (You can view the entire program here: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lawreport/internships/4775 …)

Damien Carrick: Hello, welcome to the Law Report. Could a recent court decision be the swan song of unpaid internships?

Journalist [archival]: A federal judge has ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime laws by not paying interns who worked on the production of the 2010 movie Black Swan.

Journalist [archival]: In my day it seemed the majority of internships were unpaid, but the tides may be changing. A lawsuit was filed and won against Fox Searchlight Pictures …

Journalist [archival]: Wouldn’t it be great if all unpaid internships paid really well? Sure. It would also be great if my dog made breakfast for me every morning, but I’m not going to file a lawsuit over it.

Journalist [archival]: The suit was spearheaded by interns Eric Glatt and Alex Footman who said they worked 40 hours every week but were doing work that …

Damien Carrick: New York lawyer Sally Abrahamson acted for the lead plaintiff Eric Glatt in his case against the makers of the film Black Swan.

Sally Abrahamson: He did a lot of entry-level work; getting people to sign things and making photocopies, he picked up paycheques for co-workers, tracked purchase orders, did a lot of stuff for the accounting, invoices, and went and got managers’ signatures. So a lot of a menial tasks. So the court decided that he was an employee and not a trainee or an intern. The types of work that they did was work that entry-level employees would do.

Damien Carrick: Well, what did the judge say?

Sally Abrahamson: He said no matter how menial Fox argued that this work is, it’s work that they would have had to have a paid person do had these interns not been doing it.

Damien Carrick: People listening to this will be thinking, gee, they understood what they were doing, nobody was holding a gun to their head, they had agency, they could always walk away. So why …because it didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to turn out, it didn’t lead to a job perhaps, can they then go back and demand money that they would not have demanded if it had led to a job?

Sally Abrahamson: I think there are a couple of answers to that. I think one is the US …I mean, we are recovering from a big recession but we haven’t gotten there yet, and unemployment for recent college graduates is in the double digits. And so a lot of people don’t really think they have a choice. They don’t see entry-level jobs that they can go to and so they opt for these internships, or they think it’s the only way they will be able to get a job after college.

Damien Carrick: How prevalent are internships in the USA at the job entry level?

Sally Abrahamson: They’re very prevalent, and certain industries really seem to rely on internships; publishing, film, entertainment, but really they are everywhere. And an important distinction also for our firm, for Outten & Golden, is that we’re not trying to get rid of internship programs, we’re trying to get people paid minimum wage. And then if they are not paid minimum wage, we’re trying to allow people to use these decisions as leverage so that they really can get the supervision and training that they are entitled to if they are not going to be paid.

Damien Carrick: Sally Abrahamson, a lawyer with the firm Outten & Golden who represented intern Eric Glatt in his legal action against Fox Searchlight.