Court ruling spurs lawsuits by unpaid interns
CAPITAL REGION The era of unpaid internships may be over.
In a landmark ruling recently, a federal judge decided in favor of two former Fox Searchlight interns who worked on the production of the film “Black Swan.”
According to Outten & Golden LLP, the law firm that represented the interns, they performed the work of production assistants, bookkeepers, secretaries and janitors on the film, which was produced and co-produced by Fox Searchlight, but were not paid.
Last month, the judge ruled Fox Searchlight is in violation of federal and state labor laws for failing to pay interns. The ruling in favor of the interns has inspired other unpaid interns to file similar complaints against their former employers.
Michael Billok, a labor and employment law attorney in Albany, said the U.S. Department of Labor has six guidelines employers must follow when deciding if they are required by law to pay an intern. New York has 11 of its own labor standards for interns, as well. Among those guidelines: an employer cannot benefit from interns without paying them, and interns cannot not displace regular employees.
“It is hard to meet those,” Billok added.
An employer can get around paying an intern if the intern is gaining more out of the internship than the employer is gaining from the intern.
“You could have someone who is a volunteer at a not-for-profit,” Billok said. “The training is educational and for the intern’s benefit.”
If an intern feels their employer broke some of the labor standards they can take legal action, Billok said.
The first step would be talking to the employer directly. If that does not work, and the intern still feels their employer is breaking the law, they can contact state or federal labor departments. Lastly, they can contact an attorney.
“If they truly are an unpaid intern … they should have received in writing in advance they are not going to be paid,” Billok said. “There has been an increase in internship lawsuits in New York.”
Penny Loretto, associate director of internships and experiential education at Skidmore College, said internships are crucial for students.
“Internships provide students with the knowledge and skills to get hired in a competitive job market,” she said. “When employers are hiring, they actually prefer candidates who have had an internship.”
Statistics show about 50 percent of interns are unpaid, she said. Skidmore has several programs set up to help compensate its own students in unpaid internships. Loretto said Skidmore decided to take action after many students complained they could not afford to take unpaid internships.
“We had a lot of students who were looking for opportunities … but could not find paid ones in their field,” she said.
About 17 students are now a part of the Skidmore Summer Funded Internship Awards Program, which started in 2009.
The students take unpaid internships all around the country for the summer and receive compensation from Skidmore.
“The program has been an enormous success,” Loretto said. “We would love to see all students get at least one funded internship while at Skidmore.”
A lot of students do get paid internships, she said.
“Of course it is always of benefit for the student to get something that is paid,” Loretto said. “Sometimes the experience is valuable in and of itself, but not something all students can do.”
The College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University at Albany offers a 10-week, paid summer internship where students get hands-on experience and research opportunities. Sharon Lin of Guilderland took the internship to gain research experience.
“To be completely honest, I wasn’t really thinking about the paycheck,” she said. “It is a really nice bonus.”
Susan Sharfstein, an associate professor of nanobioscience at the college, said even if students would take the internship if it was not paid, CNSE thinks it is important to pay their interns.
“Being a paid internship allows us to bring students from out of the area,” she said.
Sarah Garnsey, 23, is a paid intern at Wilton Wildlife Preserve. A recent SUNY Potsdam graduate with a degree in biology, she was looking for something in her field before she decided to pursue graduate school.
“Probably the first and major reason is it relates to my degree,” she said of her choice of the internship. “I was really excited to be able to find a position in a company that revolved around science. I am gaining so many different skills.”
The pay, Garnsey said, “was extra icing on the cake.”
But Garnsey also said she understands not everyone receives offers for paid internships.
In her experience, she has learned unpaid internships can sometimes open the door for a paid internship or job.
“I encourage folks not to get discouraged,” she said. “Volunteer with that organization and just try to get your name known.”