Current Weather
The Spy FM

Unpaid Interns: Real World Work Or Just Free Labor?

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
November 12, 2011

Over 1 million Americans a year work as interns. About half of them are unpaid.

Alex Footman was among them, until recently. He worked as an unpaid intern for Black Swan, a film that won numerous awards and grossed over $300 million.

Footman was hoping an internship with Black Swan would open doors in Hollywood. Instead, it has made him rethink his career plans. “This was six months of my life which left me nowhere further along in my career than before,” Footman says. “It was not a learning experience and that was what I had expected. This really just seemed like I was just working and wasn’t getting paid for it.”

He’s now part of the open class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures, the film’s producer. He and another unpaid intern, Eric Glatt, are suing to win back pay for the hours they worked. They’re also filing for an injunction that would keep the company from hiring unpaid interns in the future.

Footman says he filed papers and ran errands alongside paid employees. Glatt worked as an accountant who kept financial records for the production. Their lawsuit is the first case on unpaid internships in over a decade.

The Department of Labor has said that this sort of work may be illegal for unpaid interns to do. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled over 50 years ago that only work done for training purposes could go unpaid. The Labor Department says companies began skirting the rule. Last year, it moved to issue a six-point test that for-profit internships must pass to comply with labor laws.

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, pushed for that test. His organization looks at life for working-class Americans. He says the test’s “essential ingredient is that it has to be for the benefit of the intern, not for the benefit of the employer.”

Representatives from Fox Searchlight declined to speak with NPR for this story, but they did issue a statement about the case. It reads in part: “Fox Searchlight internships comply with all federal and state laws and regulations.” The statement also says that the company provides interns with a “valuable ‘real world’ business experience.”

It’s this “real world” experience that Bob Yari thinks is necessary to make inroads in Hollywood.

“The film industry is an industry that’s very difficult to break into,” says Yari, who heads Yari Film Group, which made the films Crash and Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, among others. “Internships are a way to allow the outsiders to come in and start the process of getting a foothold in the industry. I don’t think they’re done because [companies] don’t want to pay someone to get coffee.”

Internships have become an almost essential first step on the career ladder, says Phil Gardner, who directs the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. He says companies don’t pay interns because they can get away with it.

“Nobody’s been called on this. And in economic times when you’re cutting the bottom line and meeting your third quarter, I think the rationale is, ‘Why pay anything for them?’ ” he says.

Gardner says interns don’t know what to expect from employers or what laws they might be breaking. Since interns hope to land a paid position, they aren’t very likely to file complaints.

But some think companies are just as hard pressed as job seekers in the current economy. Among them is Helana Natt, executive director of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce.

Natt contends companies just can’t afford to pay interns the minimum wage. “I’m sure if they can, they would. People don’t understand, when you’re hiring people it take a lot of time away,” she says.

According to Natt, companies have scaled back human resources budgets and use internships as a low-cost screening process.

But EPI’s Eisenbrey thinks unpaid internships cut costs beyond hiring expenses. He says companies have saved big-time by turning the entry-level jobs of yesterday into the unpaid internships of today.

“The middle class is being undermined and the way it’s being undermined is by having salaries, wages and benefits undermined,” Eisenbrey says. “Nothing does that more directly than allowing employers to employ people without paying them.”

Eisenbrey is closely watching the Black Swan case. He says a win for the plaintiffs could mean serious changes for this booming class of workers. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

12AM to 5AM The Spy

The Spy

An eclectic mix of the Spy's library of more than 10,000 songs curated by Ferris O'Brien.

Listen Live Now!

5AM to 6AM Living On Earth

Living On Earth

Living on Earth with Steve Curwood is the weekly environmental news and information program distributed by Public Radio International.

View the program guide!

6AM to 7AM On Being

On Being

On Being engages listeners across the spectrum of belief and non-belief in conversation about life's deepest questions. From autism to the ethics of torture, Krista and her guests reach beyond the headlines to probe faith and meaning, ethics and new ways of being, amidst the political, ecological, economic, cultural and technological shifts that define 21st century life.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center