Unpaid internships- A court victory that asks “How do you filter them?”

unpaid-internshipsA court victory for unpaid interns today and possibly a wake-up call for corporate America. Yesterday, New York federal judge William Pauley ruled in favor of  two interns suing Fox Searchlight over the internship programs of Fox Entertainment Group. The Hollywood Reporter says the court’s summary judgment was also certified as a class action  The lawsuit was filed two years ago by interns Alex Footman and Eric Glatt who worked on Fox Searchlight’s Black Swan and claimed the company’s unpaid internship program violated minimum wage and overtime laws.

Fox issued this statement to The Hollywood Reporter on the ruling: “We are very disappointed with the court’s rulings.  We believe they are erroneous, and will seek to have them reversed by the 2nd Circuit as quickly as possible.”

Meanwhile, an opinion article from the Guardian newspaper on unpaid internships prompted an interesting discussion among colleagues in our college this past month.

In the article author David Dennis notes that media companies that rely on unpaid interns marginalize the voices of low-income communities and minorities. A graduate from Northwestern University, David writes: “And therein lies the issue with unpaid internships. The practice of asking recent graduates to spend their days working for free while paying rent and living in a city like New York is a barrier for entry to students from mid- to lower-class backgrounds.”   

Specifically, Dennis wrote that unpaid internships become barriers for low-income and minority candidates access to their professional fields because they can’t afford to work for free without incurring debt. This, argues Dennis means we have less diversity in the media.

Dennis writes: “Recently, I wrote about how stories of crime in New Orleans or Chicago’s Southside are under-reported on the national level, and one of the reasons is the fact that voices from these areas aren’t making it to the national conversation to influence the direction of national discourse. Media workplaces are becoming populated by those who can afford the jobs. Those who can’t are being shut out.  How many journalists can say they have firsthand knowledge of the mentality of someone from the inner-city? Many of these voices have been muted just because they simply can’t navigate the landscape of privilege that most modern journalism encourages.”  

I agree with Dennis’ opinion on unpaid interns. The International Business Times recently mentioned a well-known 2010 report by the Economic Policy Institute whose authors argued  persuasively, that “the choice to take an internship is not only contingent on a student’s qualifications, but also his or her economic means, thus institutionalizing socioeconomic disparities beyond college.”

unpaid-intern-2I also believe some for-profit companies use unpaid interns to save labor costs. There are recent legal cases to back this observation and to disprove it.  I believe this is, in part,  due to poor Fair Labor Standards Act enforcement by the U.S. Department of Labor regarding unpaid internships. I also believe this hurts those businesses who try to compete while providing paid internship opportunities.

Something else is hidden in the unpaid intern debate. My belief is that unpaid internships are a double whammy for some college graduates. They struggle to get jobs because the services they’re qualified to provide employers are already being provided by unpaid interns.

I said I agreed with Dennis’ views against the inequity of unpaid internships. Not everyone sees it that way.  Click here to see  how Denver Fox affiliate KDVR “Everyday Show” co-hosts Chris Parente and Melody Mendez put their spin on the topic of unpaid interns.

My response to KDVR:

 “I watched your treatment of this issue from your morning show. If you think a part of an unpaid intern’s job is to fetch coffee and dry cleaning for employees at Fox31 I would advise my students from interning at your TV station. That’s an exploitative mindset. An internship should provide students the opportunity to gain real world observations, experience and contacts in a professional workplace that ties directly to their future professional interests. They’re not unpaid personal assistants. So, please keep the focus on providing interns opportunities that will make them better potential future employees and managers for Fox31 and get your own coffee and dry cleaning.”

KDVR host Parente appeared to struggle in his understanding of the Dennis article. Parente incorrectly referred to Dennis as a woman and a “journalism ethics expert. Dennis is actually creative director at The Smoking Section website and a freelance writer.

Mendez commented that she once had an unpaid internship in college AND worked a part-time job. “It is possible to do both,” said Mendez.

To opinions such as Mendez’, Dennis wrote: “All of my classmates were qualified to work in any newsroom or publication in the city, but those who could afford the lifestyle got their feet in the door with internships. Sure, it’s possible for someone to work 40 hours a week without pay while also waiting tables at night, but it sure is easier when you don’t have to worry about earning a living – or paying student loans.”      

I’ll go one step more on unpaid internships- 

According to the Department of Labor internships in the “for-profit” private sector are most often viewed as employment. This means interns in the “for-profit” private sector who qualify as employees rather than trainees typically must be paid at least the  minimum wage and overtime compensation for hours worked over forty in a work week.

Here’s the U.S. Department of Labor’s six criteria for-profit companies must meet in order to legally use unpaid interns:

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to
training which would be given in an educational environment;
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern;
and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the
internship.

If all of the factors listed above are met, an employment relationship does not exist says the U.S. Department of Labor and the for-profit company may use unpaid interns. Otherwise, minimum wage and overtime provisions do apply to the intern. Or as Judge Pauley wrote in his opionion which sides with the unpaid interns in the “Black Swan” case:

After going through the experiences of Footman and Glatt on Black Swan, here’s what Judge Pauley concludes:

“Considering the totality of the circumstances, Glatt and Footman were classified improperly as unpaid interns and are ’employees’ covered by the FLSA and NYLL. They worked as paid employees work, providing an immediate advantage to their employer and perfomed low-level tasks not requiring specialized training. The benefits they may have received — such as the knowledge of how a production or accounting office functions or references for future jobs — are the results of simply having worked as any other employee works, not of internships designed to be uniquely educational to the interns and of little utility to the employer. They received nothing approximating the education they would receive in an academic setting or vocational school. This is a far cry from [the Supreme Court’s decision in]Walling, where trainees impeded the regular business of the employer, worked only in their own interest and provided no advantage to the employer. Glatt and Footman do not fall within the narrow ‘trainee’ exception to the FLSA’s broad coverage.”

The latest court ruling means a victory for those who argue against unpaid internships, particularly when they may involve doing work that other employees are paid for performing in other work settings. It may also signal the court’s willingness to limit, even end unpaid internships used as a guise by some employers to limit their labor costs as well as employment opportunities for students and other qualified workers.There will be more legal battles on this case and victory for the plaintiffs is far from certain at this point.

I’ll sum it up with the ending of the International Business Times article on unpaid internships because it captures the “anecdotal reality” many recent college grads may be living. It uses HBO’s hit drama “Girls,” character Hannah who works as an unpaid publishing intern, despite having graduated college two years earlier. After she’s told by her parents that they will no longer fund her post-collegiate escapades, Hannah explains to her boss that she can no longer afford to work for free. His reply? “I’m really going to miss your energy.”

 

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About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm an associate professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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One Response to Unpaid internships- A court victory that asks “How do you filter them?”

  1. carolannemckinley says:

    Notice how the KDVR female anchor made this segment all about her. There was little reference to the points that you make in your article. Adore the gratuitous shot of the interns waving on the steps. Now for my spin: my unpaid internship in TV in the mid-80’s did get me a job 2 years after I graduated from college, but only because it made me the best qualified journalist in a small NE Wyoming town. Meanwhile, as a sidenote, my only colleague who actually parlayed her internship into a job was also caught in the parking garage with the news director.

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