Unpaid interns given a voice in landmark court ruling
On June 11, 2013, Federal District judge in Manhattan, Judge William H. Pauley III, ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures had broken the New York Labor Law (NYLL) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by not compensating two unpaid interns, Eric Glatt (L’15) and Alexander Footman, for time spent working on the film Black Swan in 2008 and 2009.
The ruling was the first time that a federal judge has ruled in favor of unpaid interns, using the Department of Labor’s six-point test to determine whether or not an internship can be unpaid. Due to the fact that both Glatt and Footman’s work displaced regular employees, Fox Searchlight Pictures were the primary beneficiaries of the internship and derived immediate advantage from their activities, the internships were deemed in violation of the six-point test as well as the NYLL and the FLSA.
In recent years a number of cases about unpaid internships and whether remuneration is deserved have come to light. These include a class action suit against Hearst Corporation and another class action suit against Condé Nast Publications, both for violations of the six-point test and thus the FLSA.
When asked about the potential implications of the ruling, particularly as to whether or not it will lead to a decrease in the number of unpaid internships, Glatt said, “Absolutely [it will lead to a decrease], or the conversion of unpaid internships into paid internships, and I mean that’s the key focus.”
In discussing the culture of unpaid internships that has emerged, Glatt (pictured at right at a panel event earlier this year at Georgetown) said, “It’s just a slippery, slippery slope and no one stopped and bothered to think about what its effects were on the labor market and all the people who are losing their jobs because they are being replaced by interns. It doesn’t say anything about people when they go out of the job market, employers can use the threat of using free labor to push down wages for other people, and I’ve seen that myself. No one bothered to stop and think about what would happen if this became as widespread and institutionalized as it has become.”
Fundamentally, he said, it comes down to a question of burden of proof. “If a company out there really feels passionately that their internship is in full compliance with the law, they have an option, which is to go to the Department of Labor and request an administrative ruling that would be somebody looking at it at the front end, to make sure it’s in full compliance with the law. Rather than the situation we have today, which is absolutely unconscionable, which is forcing the least informed party, the one with the least amount of negotiating leverage with the most at stake and the most incentive to keep their mouth shut.
“The current situation basically allows employers to do whatever they want and enforcement is upon the intern to come forward and file a complaint for something they suspect is a problem and it’s just too many [sic] in place not to do that. It should be up to the employer, if they really think they’re in compliance, to get sign off ahead of time.”
Photo: Julia Tanaka/Georgetown Voice