It’s been a good month for those fighting the scourge of unpaid quote-unquote “internships,” which are too often simply part-time or full-time jobs in disguise. First, NBCUniversal agreed to settle with a group of former unpaid interns for Saturday Night Live, who sued as a class for labor law and wage violations. Now this week comes news that Conde Naste, publishing empire, has also decided to settle, to the tune of 5.8 million, the class action suit brought against it by its own former interns. The Conde Nast settlement is perhaps a bit more expected: the company appears to have known it had entered into some dangerous waters in its internship practices, and decided to end the program entirely this past summer.
All of these successful legal resolutions – and some smaller ones that don’t make the news – very likely owe a debt to the plaintiffs in the so-called “Black Swan” intern lawsuit, where former unpaid interns for Fox Searchlight who worked on the Oscar-winning Darren Aronofsky film where able to obtain a summary judgment win. In legal terms, winning on summary judgment means you win even before having to go to trial – call it the law version of a total knockout. The Black Swan victory sent tidal waves throughout corporate America, which for decades now has relied on the labor of unpaid college kids and recent graduates to power their companies.
If you’ve noticed a trend in the above named companies, you aren’t wrong. The media industry, film, publishing, journalism, and the like, has long had an unpaid intern problem, with a reliance on free labor growing worse by the year. Why is this? Well, these are “glamorous” internships – you may be able to get a byline at a prestigious publication, meet a celebrity, impress your friends. Unfortunately, what’s become much more true these days is that you will not be guaranteed a job. In fact, it’s unclear whether holding an unpaid internship improves your odds of being hired by that company at all.
You read that right – unpaid internships improve your odds of receiving a job offer by a measly 1.8 percent over non-interns. Paid internships, on the other hand, provide a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor, likely because the company actually has an investment in the paid intern, and will choose that intern more carefully, and train them more thoroughly, than they would an unpaid intern.
The Serrins Fisher Blog has discussed the scourge of unpaid internships before, and why exactly they violate the law, but it’s worth revisiting. Believe it or not, unpaid internships are not by definition illegal: federal labor law allows them, but regulates them heavily and defines them narrowly. In essence, an unpaid internship is meant to be entirely for the educational benefit of the intern herself. It’s not about the company; it’s about the worker. Any benefits conferred on the employer must simply be incidental to the educational quality of the internship experience.
Theoretically, you could imagine this working out for both employer and intern. For example, getting a byline and an article published for Conde Naste does provide a solid professional experience in a competitive industry, as well as a nice resume entry. It also gives Conde Naste something to publish, obviously. Win-win. But where these internships run into problems is when companies begin relying solely or primarily on their unpaid interns to produce the products that earn them money. This is part of the law: interns cannot legally be mere substitutes for paid employees.
The other problem with unpaid internships is more obvious: interns being given tasks with absolutely zero educational value simply because a company doesn’t wish to pay someone to do them. Getting coffee, running errands, even taking out the garbage: you would be shocked by some of the tasks described by unpaid interns in recent lawsuits.
If you suspect your employer has taken advantage of you in an intern capacity, contact the offices of Serrins Fisher. This is no small matter – unpaid internships can easily run afoul of both federal and state labor laws, for the obvious reason that it is illegal to make someone work for you without paying them. The tide may be turning in this area, thanks to dedicated plaintiffs and employment lawyers, but it has in no way turned entirely. Talk to us to find out more.