Internships are a great way to open many doors to full-time employment, great connections and overall experience in your fields of interest. Some of us have participated in these internships either as a means of fulfilling curriculum requirements at school, or just to obtain experience. If you have worked in fashion and entertainment as an intern, you more than likely worked for only school credit or simply no pay at all. Though the experience and connections made may be invaluable, some former interns are fighting through the courts for damages and back pay due to working regular hours as an employee, but not being paid.
Fox Searchlight and W Magazine both had lawsuits filed against them for back compensation allegedly due to former interns handling tasks such as fetching coffee, making copies of documents and answering phone calls. A Judge with a New York Federal Court ruled that Fox Searchlight should have compensated two unpaid interns for assisting in such manner for the movie “Black Swan” in 2010. This ruling opened the door for more “disgruntled” interns to file the same lawsuits against Conde Nast and Warner Music Group, citing unpaid wages for office work performed in past years.
One way to avoid opening themselves to said litigation is for companies to legally hire interns by following the U.S. Department of Labor guideline under the Fair Labor Standards Act. This act states that as long as interns do not “displace regular employees” and “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern,” then all is fair. The only organizations given a “free pass” are non profits. This may seriously affect small companies who simply can’t afford to hire employees, yet, utilize interns to get small tasks done and provide experience as well.
With minimum wage resting at a low amount, the expected damages awarded to these interns may not be substantial, but for many of them the lawsuits were more about fairness as opposed recouping money. Many speculate that unpaid internships may be a thing of the past with these rulings, despite the many interns willing and waiting to jump at opportunities to gain experience, make connections and fill their resumes which in my opinion is an extreme disservice to those looking for a great way to get their foot in the door no matter the cost to them or their unpaid efforts.
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Rashida Maples, Esq. is Founder and Managing Partner of J. Maples & Associates (www.jmaplesandassociates.com). She has practiced Entertainment, Real Estate and Small Business Law for 9 years, handling both transactional and litigation matters. Her clients include R&B Artists Bilal and Olivia, NFL Superstar Ray Lewis, Fashion Powerhouse Harlem’s Fashion Row and Hirschfeld Properties, LLC.