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Unpaid No More: Interns Win Major Court Battle

npr.org—Tovia Smith

A federal court in New York has ruled that a group of interns at Fox Searchlight Pictures should have been paid for their work on the movie Black Swan. The decision may have broad implications for students looking for their first job.

Eric Glatt filed the federal lawsuit against Fox. He says everyone always told him taking an unpaid internship was the way to get his foot in the door in the film industry.

At Fox, he worked as an unpaid accounting clerk, he says — filing, getting signatures, running checks and handling petty cash — but he was working for nothing.

"All these employers who think if they slap the title intern on the job description, suddenly they don't have to pay for it," he says.

Glatt says this week's court ruling finally bursts what he calls the myth that employers are all offering interns great educational opportunities. "Businesses are not running free schools on their work sites," he says. "What they're doing is getting people to do work that their businesses need done."

Tightening Up Regulation

The Department of Labor has set rules for when internships can be unpaid. Other courts have interpreted them to mean that unpaid interns need to be getting more from the company than the company gets from them.

But this week's ruling goes even further, saying that unpaid internships must have an actual educational component independent of school credits or the job experience.

Juno Turner, Glatt's attorney, says the ruling leaves little wiggle room. "I think that many, many internships fall into the category of wage theft and I think that this decision is a blow to that practice."

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For his part, former intern Glatt is hoping to move on to see what he'll get in back pay and damages. Glatt could use the money. He has given up on the movie industry and is now in law school.