Two men who worked on the hit movie “Black Swan” mounted an unusual challenge to the film industry’s widely accepted practice of unpaid internships by filing a lawsuit on Wednesday asserting that the production company violated minimum wage and overtime laws by hiring dozens of them.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Manhattan, claims that Fox Searchlight Pictures, the producer of “Black Swan,” had the interns do grunt work that should have been done by paid employees and did not provide them with the type of educational experience that labor rules require to exempt the company from paying interns.
“Fox Searchlight’s unpaid interns are a crucial labor force on its productions, functioning as production assistants and bookkeepers and performing secretarial and janitorial work,” the lawsuit says. “In misclassifying many of its workers as unpaid interns, Fox Searchlight has denied them the benefits that the law affords to employees.” Workplace experts say the number of unpaid internships has been growing in recent years, not just in the film industry but in many sectors. Some young people complain that these internships unfairly give the affluent and well connected access to prestigious fields.
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The lawsuit seeks to be certified as a class action on behalf of what the plaintiffs say were more than 100 unpaid interns on Fox Searchlight productions. In addition to seeking back pay for what the lawsuit contends were violations of federal and state wage laws, it also seeks to bar Fox Searchlight from improperly using unpaid interns.
Fox Searchlight acted illegally, the lawsuit asserts, because the company did not meet the criteria of the United States Department of Labor for unpaid internships. Those criteria include that the position benefit the intern, that the intern not displace regular employees, that the training received be similar to what would be given in an educational institution and that the employer derive no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities. Fox Searchlight officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Movie companies have defended the practice of having unpaid interns, saying the internships are educational, highly coveted and are an important way for those who want to work in the film industry to get their foot in the door.
Lawyers for several companies that use unpaid interns say the Department of Labor’s criteria are obsolete, noting that department officials rarely enforce the rules against unpaid internships.
The other named plaintiff, Eric Glatt, 42, who has an M.B.A. from Case Western Reserve University, was an accounting intern for Black Swan. He said his responsibilities included preparing documents for purchase orders and petty cash, traveling to the set to obtain signatures on needed documents and creating spreadsheets to track missing documents in each production employee’s personnel file.
Mr. Glatt, who had been working at AIG, training new employees, said he took the “Black Swan” internship because he wanted to move into the film industry.
“When I started looking for opportunities in the industry, I saw that most people accept an ugly trade-off,” he said. “If you want to get your foot in the door on a studio picture, you have to suck it up and do an unpaid internship. As I learned more about the labor conditions and the law, I got more incensed about this whole thing. The producer was making hundreds of millions of dollars and was still using unpaid labor.”
Adam Klein, a lawyer with Outten & Golden, the firm which filed the lawsuit, said this would be the first move in a series of lawsuits to fight unpaid internships, a practice he said hurt those entering the job market.
“Unpaid interns are usually too scared to speak out and to bring such a lawsuit because they are frightened it will hurt their chances of finding future jobs in their industry,” Mr. Klein said.
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