A Federal Court in New York ruled this month against unpaid internships, saying the workers were protected under federal and state wage and hour laws. In Glatt, et al v. Fox Searchlight, the judge ruled that the workers are owed the applicable minimum wage rate for all hours worked, overtime for the hours that they work over 40 in a workweek, spread of hours pay on days on which they work more than 10 hours, and reimbursement for the use of their personal cell phones and laptop computers on film production work. The judge also certified a subsequent class action to recover unpaid wages, overtime pay, unreimbursed expenses, liquidated damages, interest and attorneys’ fees for all unpaid interns who worked for Fox Searchlight between September 28, 2005 and the date of a final judgment.
Interesting that the majority of the plaintiffs in this suit were interns working on this particular movie. In case you missed it, the story was about a striving ballet dancer desperate to make the starring role as the Black Swan in her company’s production of Swan Lake. The movie reveals the dog-eat-dog world within ballet companies as novices aspire to stardom, toiling long hours for little or no pay, all in the hopes of getting noticed for the plum job.
Perhaps these interns slaving away on the set found time to ponder the similarity of their own circumstances to those of Natalie Portman’s over-wrought character. The film’s dark, supernatural ending may have loomed as a metaphor for their own ultimate fate, knowing that after all the hours of unpaid service to the company they would most likely be cast into the dark, with only a couple of new lines on their resumes to show for it. Maybe they just started talking to each other instead of to production managers, and it dawned on them they were getting a raw deal. So they sued. And won.
Taken together with a similar lawsuit won by unpaid interns working for Conde Nast, Hollywood and the publishing industries have lately been getting slammed with a lot of interns right to pay suits, though that’s not surprising. Both are glamour fields that have traditionally attracted legions of willingly unpaid slaves from among the aspiring middle and upper class youth of our great nation (e.g., those who can afford to work a whole summer without pay). Until 2010, when the Department of Labor began a real enforcement effort to apply the Six-Part Test to allow unpaid internships under the traditional “Trainee” exception to minimum wage and hour laws, these industries had wandered down a path of shameless exploitation of interns doing the productive work of employees without compensation.
Our next post will talk about the Six Part Test to help you see if your internship programs pass muster, and recommend internship best practices to stay compliant with this evolving legal trend. Stay tuned.