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.
Since the economic crisis of 2008 and subsequent recession, we've seen a significant increase in the number of lawsuits filed by unpaid interns, alleging labor violations. As this Forbes article details, it isn't necessarily that the amount of unpaid internships has increased - these have been with us since the early 1990s. Rather, the Great Recession has significantly decreased the likelihood of obtaining a full-time position from an unpaid internship. ("As for unpaid internships, students who have them are today hardly more likely to get a job offer [37 percent] than those who have no internship at all [35 percent].") Additionally, graduates unable to find work are now being pulled into the mix, working for free and not even earning academic credit for that work.
In 2013, following rancorous disputes between the Obama Administration and congressional Republicans, the federal government partially shut down from October 1 through October 16. Note the word "partially" - since a total shutdown would have resulted in unprecedented chaos, federal employees were divided into two groups. "Non-excepted" employees performed supposedly non-essential government functions, and were told to stay home during the shutdown. "Excepted" employees - prison guards, border agents, and various other groups employed in safety and protective functions - still had to work. Unfortunately for those employees, it was unclear at the time when, exactly, they would be paid for this work.
In a decision handed down June 18, the Second Circuit, the federal appellate court covering New York State, delineated and refined exactly what constitutes a "volunteer," a category of worker excluded from the protections of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. In a time where more and more high school and college graduates are accepting unpaid positions when they are unable to find work, the decision comes as a stark reminder of the importance of labor laws.
In a previous post, we discussed whether employees can sue for not receiving "Wage Notices" required under New York's Wage & Hour Laws. Under the current law, employers must provide wage notices to employees upon hire and prior to February 1 of each subsequent year.
Wage theft - the practice of employers withholding rightful pay or benefits owed to their employees - has been illegal in the United States since 1938, when Congress passed and Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the landmark Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). This federal law, which FDR himself called the "most important Act" of New Deal legislation since Social Security was created, is the reason that Americans have a minimum guaranteed wage at all. According to the FLSA, if your boss denies you money or benefits that you rightfully earned, you may sue him or her in federal court and receive your stolen back-pay, and in some cases, additional "liquidated" damages.