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Unpaid interns strike back by suing Fox

Sep 21, 2011 / Media Coverage

bottomline.msnbc.msn.com—Marisa Taylor

While unpaid internships are obligatory for many college students hoping to spruce up their resumes and get a leg up on job prospects, a stagnant labor market has meant that many college graduates are accepting those unpaid internships in lieu of entry level jobs, with the hopes that they’ll lead to paid work.

And college graduates desperate for work may not want to ruffle feathers when their employers wade in murky legal waters by asking them to do the work of regular employees under the guise of an unpaid internship.

But that’s not the case for two former unpaid interns who worked on the Oscar-nominated film “The Black Swan.”  In a class action lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, former production interns Alex Footman and Eric Glatt allege that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime laws, reported The New York Times.

The court documents said: “Fox Searchlight is profitable due in part to its tight control over the budgets of its small-scale productions,” and that the production company “has been able to reduce its film production costs by employing a steady stream of unpaid interns.” The lawsuit claims that the film was produced for $13 million but grossed more than $300 million worldwide.

According to the court documents:

“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…. In misclassifying many of its workers as unpaid interns, Fox Searchlight has denied them the benefits that the law affords to employees, including unemployment and workers’ compensation insurance, sexual harassment and discrimination protections, and, most crucially, the right to earn a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.”

At the New York City production office for “The Black Swan,” Footman and Glattwere asked to make coffee, take lunch orders and remove garbage as a part of their unpaid internships withFox Searchlight, the same sorts of tasks that paid production assistants would do, according to Elizabeth Wagner, an attorney for labor employment law firm Outten & Golden and one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

“It’s essentially undermining the labor market for for-profit employers to pay no wages to people who are essentially entry-level employees,” she said. “These two individuals decided to step up and actually do something about it. They should be paid.

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But whether the work qualifies as such from a legal standpoint is considerably more complicated. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Fair Labor Standards Act outlines six legal criteria that define unpaid internships, but recent media coverage has exposed that many employers may be violating those laws, and students desperate for work experience are too scared to say anything.

According to the Labor Department's criteria, the unpaid internship should be “similar to the training that would be given in a vocational school” and “does not displace regular employees." It should be “for the benefit of the student” (which might lead one to ponder who is the main beneficiary of delivering coffee), and the employer “derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.”

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But plaintiff attorney Wagoner says the conditions her clients experienced at Fox are, sadly, nothing new. “For-profit corporations are able to find people to work for free because with this level of unemployment, people who don’t have jobs need to distinguish themselves, or feel that they do,” she said. “It’s very easy for them to take advantage of that. It’s widespread.”

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