In a decison that could have far-reaching repercussions for unpaid internships, a federal District Court judge ruled on Tuesday that two unpaid interns who worked on the movie Black Swan should have been compensated for their services.
The two interns, Alexander Footman and Eric Glatt, argued that they were forced to do menial work that would otherwise have been done by paid employees. That, they argued, meant their internships should have been covered by state and federal wage laws.
The Department of Labor does allow for some internships to be unpaid, so long as they meet six vague criteria, including that the temporary positions be "educational" and "for the benefit of the intern." However, those guidelines also make it clear that interns cannot simply "displace" regular employees by effectively serving in roles that would otherwise be filled by paid staff.
Judge William H. Pauley III agreed with the plaintiffs, saying that while they received some benefits from their internships, like bolstered resumes and job references, "those benefits were incidental to working in the office like any other employees and were not the result of internships intentionally structured to benefit them."
More from the opinion, via the Hollywood Reporter:
Considering the totality of the circumstances, Glatt and Footman were classified improperly as unpaid interns and are "employees" covered by the FLSA [Fair Labor Standards Act] and NYLL [New York Labor Law.] They worked as paid employees work, providing an immediate advantage to their employer and performed 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. [Source]
Glatt and Footman, both production interns on Black Swan, had sued Fox Searchlight back in September 2001. In the suit, they alleged they acted essentially as office lackeys, taking food orders, fetching coffee, answering phones, and managing employees' schedules — a description that interns in different industries around the country will probably find familiar.
Following the ruling, their lawyer expressed optimism that it could nudge more employers to begin paying their summer help.
"Employers have already started to take a hard look at their internship programs," said Rachel Bien, according to the New York Times. "I think this decision will go far to discourage private companies from having unpaid internship programs."
There are approximately one million interns each year, half of them unpaid, according to the research firm Intern Bridge.
In his ruling Judge Pauley also allowed another group of unpaid interns to proceed with a class-action suit against Fox Entertainment Group, saying that "the relatively small recoveries available to individual plaintiffs make a class action a more efficient mechanism."
The ruling differs from another high-profile unpaid internship case last month in which a District Court judge threw out a class suit brought by former interns of the publishing giant Hearst Corp. In that case, a judge ruled that they could not sue as a group, though they could pursue legal action as individuals.
Fox had argued that the production company overseeing the movie, and not Fox Searchlight itself, should have been held responsible. Following the ruling, the company said in a statement that it would appeal the decision immediately.
"We are very disappointed with the court’s rulings," the statement read. "We believe they are erroneous, and will seek to have them reversed by the 2nd Circuit as quickly as possible."