When employees go to work they expect to be paid — in most situations. In today’s economy, some workers have taken unpaid internships in order to gain experience and hopefully land a paying job in the future. These positions are particularly popular in media and journalism jobs. However, these unpaid internships have led to wage-and-hour disputes in New York, and a court case that has forced employers across the country to examine their internship policies.
In the case — known as the “Fox Searchlight” case — two unpaid interns had worked on the set of the motion picture “Black Swan.” These interns sued claiming that they should have been paid for their work since they treated as regular employees. The court agreed with the interns and said that Fox Searchlight failed to meet the standards for an internship as defined by the Department of Labor.
Specifically, the court argued that an intern did not need to be paid as long as the intern’s work does not displace the work of regular paid workers and the workplace environment is educational and provides the intern — and not the employer — with a benefit. The ruling overturned the previous standard which allowed interns to go unpaid as long as they received more benefit from the arrangement than the employer.
With this ruling, New York courts have toughed the standards employers must obey when hiring an unpaid worker. Without meeting this test, workers must be paid at least minimum wage and could qualify for other employment benefits. Furthermore, this ruling has opened up the possibility for other unpaid interns to get some compensation for their work. In some situations, these workers are being taken advantage of, and employment litigation may be one way for them to receive fair compensation.
Source: Post Crescent, “Unpaid internships under fire in Wisconsin, nationwide,” Matt Barnidge, Sept. 22, 2013