The New York Times
An unpaid internship the summer after freshman year of college was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I developed useful skills, built my résumé and learned I loved working for nonprofit public interest groups.
Because of that summer, I applaud Judge William H. Pauley III’s decision that interns who are treated like regular workers must be paid minimum wage (“Judge Rules That Movie Studio Should Have Been Paying Interns,” Business Day, June 12). I could take terrific internships because my parents were wealthy and generous enough to support me while I worked for little or no money. Meanwhile, my less fortunate roommate was waiting tables to support himself and his family. Unpaid and low-paid internships gave me an undeserved edge later in my career. Giving interns who are de facto employees minimum wage will give people from low-income families a chance to take those internships. That will make the job market fairer to all. MATTHEW A. FEIGIN New York, June 14, 2013
(CNN) -- In the fall of 2011, I was living at home in a suburb of Washington, freelancing as a grip on local productions ranging from news to corporate videos. It had been two years since I began a six-month internship in the Midtown Manhattan production office of "Black Swan," the only feature film I have worked on to date, when I received a call from my old co-worker Eric Glatt.
At first, I was surprised to hear from him. We had hit it off as fellow interns from the start. We went to the same university and shared a common interest in documentary film. But I left New York in 2010 and hadn't had much contact with Eric since.
When he brought up "Black Swan," my surprise turned to disbelief. He said he thought we had grounds to file a lawsuit against the movie studio Fox Searchlight based on our experiences as interns.
Eric was serious. He had researched the issue, found a law firm and was looking for other interns to join him as co-plaintiffs.
The basis for the lawsuit was that the studio had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act's six-point guidelines for internships by using us to do the work of paid employees, failing to provide a structured learning element to the internship and basically profiting from free labor. Internships are actually meant to provide benefit to the intern and no benefit to the employer, and indeed, even hinder the employer if it benefits the training of the intern.
After our conversation, I looked up the Department of Labor's guidelines for internships and saw for myself how clearly the law favored us. By the end of the day, I decided to join Eric as a co-plaintiff.
The decision came easy. That no other interns had filed a similar lawsuit before did not discourage us. But if it hadn't been for Eric, I might never have taken any actions myself.
If there is one thing I have learned from my experiences dealing with Fox Searchlight, it is that you cannot take for granted that your employer has your best interests at heart, and it is vital to know your rights and to speak out when they are stepped on.
We tried to get other interns to join us in the lawsuit, but we were on our own. Were they concerned that doing so would be career suicide in the film industry? Did they disagree and see themselves as beneficiaries of their experiences? Or did they think it was just a waste of time? To this day, I don't have an answer since our fellow interns haven't talked to us about it. I would be curious to hear their thoughts though.
After we filed the lawsuit, I was caught off guard by all the hate mail and angry comments. I did not expect the case to stir up such strong emotions, but it obviously touched a nerve. We were mocked by the public and the media alike.
There was a wide range of negative responses. The silly: "They should be happy they got to work with stars like Natalie Portman" -- as though we shared a dressing room and took notes on acting while on the job. The vindictive: "I hope these guys never find work in this industry again."
But what frustrated me the most was that the criticism all boiled down to one point: Unpaid internships are a fact of life that we should never question.
But we proved the critics wrong. A District Court in the Southern District of New York ruled that Eric and I were indeed employees misclassified as interns. Part of our suit was also certified as a class action, acknowledging that this has affected a great number of people and hopefully sending a warning to employers who are in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Unpaid internship in industries such as film and publishing may once have been truly educational experiences, but it has become obvious to me through conversations with others who have done internships -- and there are many of us -- that it is by and large no longer true.
I believe that there are meaningful and beneficial internships out there. We never argued against their existence -- a point that every detractor seems to miss. The court ruling is a message to employers either to provide a proper unpaid internship within the guidelines or, if they are unable or unwilling to do so, to hire employees to carry out the work they need done.
Today, I'm sitting in a hotel room in Herat, Afghanistan, after a 10-day shoot for a documentary about Afghanistan's soccer champions, Toofan Harirod FC. Since my internship with "Black Swan," I've worked for outstanding filmmakers who have taught and encouraged me on the job. They believe in developing the next generation of storytellers while compensating us for our time and work. Without them, I would never have made it this far as a filmmaker.
Since the first wave of negative feedback in 2011, the positive coverage and comments on our side have far outnumbered the detractors. Whether that will amount to sweeping changes in the industries is in the hands of the employers and in agencies responsible for enforcing labor law.
Eric and I have shown that unpaid interns can stand up for themselves. Now we want to see more laws to protect those who work for free. Better yet, we want to see more self-regulation from employers so that the burden of enforcement won't have to weigh down on the people with the least bargaining power.
Editor's note: Alex Footman lives in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he makes documentaries about topics such as women's rights and the Afghan soccer league. His directorial debut, "Weep Like the Waterwheel," premiered at film festivals in 2011. He was a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures.
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."
You can read more and listen to the program here: TheTakeAway.org
Lesson of the day: Don't treat your unpaid interns like some little herd of free laborers, okay studios? Not only is in poor form (pun intended), but it can also land you on the receiving end of a big, fat lawsuit with the quickness.
That's just what happened with a pair of so-called "interns" on 20th Century Fox's production of "Black Swan," Alexander Footman and Eric Glatt, who've now won their federal case against the studio for mishandling their term on the set.* * *
Federal judge William Pauley has decided that the duo "were classified improperly as unpaid interns and are 'employees'" and "worked as paid employees work, providing an immediate advantage to their employer." In a nutshell, this means that the two gentlemen were then legally protected under the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York's labor laws and are due some dough.
Meanwhile, the big kicker in today's "Black Swan" interns-versus-employee distinction case came when Judge Pauley certified a class action suit to allow exploration of internships throughout the entirety of Fox Entertainment Group. "Here, the relatively small recoveries available to individual plaintiffs make a class action a more efficient mechanism," he explained. So, essentially, David just sling-shotted the sh*t out of Goliath.* * *
Headlines this week about a federal judge’s ruling in an unpaid internship case are shining a light on the murky, confusing world of internships and making it clear that in most cases the law requires private employers to pay a minimum wage, even if the interns have voluntarily signed on to work for little or no money.
On Tuesday a federal judge in New York ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures broke federal labor law and New York state minimum wage laws when it employed two production interns, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, on the film Black Swan, for no pay.
Like many unpaid interns in creative fields, Glatt and Footman performed thankless tasks with no educational value, like ordering lunch, answering phones and taking out the garbage. Because so many people want to get a foot in the door in the film world, for years interns have been willing to do scut work in exchange for proximity to movie producers and talent. But it turns out that arrangement breaks laws that date back to 1938, when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which includes many of the basic labor laws we take for granted today, like the minimum wage.
A Supreme Court case from the 1940s prompted the Labor Department to lay out a six-part test employers must meet in order to have unpaid workers. (The DOL used to call them “trainees” but changed the language to “interns” in April 2010). Among the requirements: The internship has to be similar to training in a school, it has to be “for the benefit of the intern,” the intern doesn’t displace paid workers and the employer “derives no immediate advantage” from the intern’s activities. In other words, the internship’s goal is to train and teach the intern, rather than to provide free labor for the employer. If the employer doesn’t meet those six criteria, it is supposed to pay the intern minimum wage or better.
Though the laws are clear, employers in competitive, creative fields have ignored them. As the ranks of the unemployed have swelled and the surplus of jobless college students and grads has grown, increasing numbers of people young and old have been signing on for unpaid internships, wanting to make contacts and accumulate résumé lines that can help them get paying work. No one tracks the total number of interns in the U.S. but Robert Shindell, a vice president at Intern Bridge, a consulting firm, says that more than a million American students a year do internships. Roughly a fifth of those positions pay zero and offer no course credit.* * *
Since then the scene has shifted. Plaintiffs have filed at least six intern suits in the last two years claiming they were cheated out of wages, including a class action filed yesterday against Condé Nast by two former interns, one at W Magazine and the other at The New Yorker. Outten & Golden, the same plaintiff-side law firm that filed the Fox Searchlight case, is bringing the suit. It claims that the W intern, Lauren Ballinger, packed and unpacked accessories, ran errands and filled out insurance forms and was paid just $12 a day. The New Yorker intern worked three days a week reviewing submissions, responding to readers’ emails, proofreading, line editing and working on the online cartoon database. He got paid $300 to $500 for each summer he worked there. In other words, both got paid far less than minimum wage for jobs the magazines would have had to pay someone else a full salary to do. The plaintiffs are seeking class action status.
Outten & Golden also sued Hearst Magazines on behalf of a former Harper’s Bazaar intern, saying she worked up to 55 hours a week for no pay. Last July a federal court ruled she could move ahead with a collective action, meaning other Hearst plaintiffs can opt into the suit. An unpaid intern also reportedly sued Elite Model Management for $50 million.
After unpaid interns sued TV news personality Charlie Rose and his production company, the defendants settled last December for an amount that came to $110 a week in back pay for a maximum of 10 weeks, to be paid to each of 189 interns.* * *
As I was reporting this story, I felt torn about whether interns should be able to choose to work for little or no pay—call it volunteering rather than interning–to beef up their résumés and make contacts, even if the experience includes drudgery. Certainly the New Yorker intern was learning marketable skills that would have been impossible to get in a classroom. And what about that old concept of paying dues? Justin Swartz, the Outten & Golden partner on the Fox Searchlight and Condé Nast cases, set me straight: “The law says that when you work, you have to get paid,” he says simply. In other words, you should get paid to pay your dues.* * *