Unpaid Interns Bring Successful Class Actions

Former interns have recently been successful in pursuing claims against employers for unpaid wages. Class actions have been waged particularly in the popular media industry, including claims against Fox Searchlight, Hearst, Warner Music and Atlantic Recording, Conde Nast, Sony, NBC Universal and Elite Modeling Agency. Some of these cases are still working their way through the courts and some have settled, but only in a few instances did interns lose. Courts are siding favorable with interns who worked for little or no pay.

Conde Nast employees were paid less than $1 an hour for their time, still working long hours and producing viable materials for the company. For many interns, the conditions of work with no pay are worth the potential career advancements. Critics of these claims argue that wage claims against employers will significantly reduce learning opportunities and work experience for future graduates; however, unpaid internships potentially exploit workers for corporate gain.

In addition to wage claims, interns have also brought other employment law claims involving sexual harassment, discrimination, and hostile work environment. In Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television, a journalism student at Syracuse University was successfully pursuing an internship with a Hong-Kong based media corporation. She was told that a permanent position would be possible with proper visas. After she rejected sexual advances made by her superior, she was told that no visas could be obtained and was not offered a permanent position. The intern brought a sexual harassment claim in New York State and under New York City human rights laws, arguing that rejecting the sexual advance had cost her a permanent position. Though the federal court determined that unpaid interns aren’t employees and cannot sue for sexual harassment, she was eligible to bring a failure-to-hire-claim.

Hired interns do have legal rights and have been successful in bringing wage claims as well as other employment claims, including “failure-to-hire” retaliation claims. Current employer-intern relationships must follow the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA). Low-paid and unpaid internships must follow the following guidelines:

·       The internship must benefit the interns: Interns cannot be asked to perform entry-level work or administrative tasks. They must be offered educational tasks that benefit them and add valuable work experience in the desired field.

·       The intern cannot displace employees: Interns should not be performing work that is usually done by an employee.

·       The focus of the internship should be on education: Interns should be getting education opportunities and training, and employers should not derive any immediate advantage from activities of the intern. In some instances, work flow should be impeded by education and training.

·       Interns are not entitled to a job at the conclusion of internship: Interns should not be under the impression or told that they will be hired when an internship period ends.

·       Employers and interns should both agree that intern is not entitled to wages for the internship.

If an internship does not meet these criteria, an employee must be paid in accordance with relevant wage and hour requirements. Employers in violation of the U.S. Department of Labor regulations could be liable for additional employment legal claims, including sexual harassment and failure-to-hire. For more information or to speak with our attorneys about your unpaid internship or employment conditions, please call Baillon Thome Jozwiak & Wanta LLP at 612-252-3570.