Unpaid interns claim they were exploited

By Trevor Allison

The handling of unpaid internships is being challenged by former interns who claim they were exploited by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Several lawsuits have been recently filed by former interns against Fox Searchlight Pictures and Hearst Publishing, citing laws governing unpaid internships under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

According to the FLSA, for an unpaid internship to be legal, an internship must be for the benefit of the intern and be similar to training that would be given in an educational environment, among other regulations. Dates for the trials have not been set.

Alex Footman, a documentary filmmaker, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed against Fox Searchlight in September. Footman said he worked as a production intern during the making of the film “Black Swan” after graduating from Wesleyan University. Eric Glatt is the other plaintiff in the lawsuit. However, Fox Searchlight disputes their employment claims.

Footman said he and other employees were taken advantage of as free labor for the studio.

“We weren’t there to learn anything,” Footman told the Lariat. “They just needed people to do stuff they needed done.”

In defense, Fox Searchlight said Footman and Glatt worked on the film for another production company before Fox Searchlight purchased it.

“These individuals were never employed as interns or retained in any capacity by Fox Searchlight, which has a proud history of supporting and fostering productive internships,” Fox Searchlight said in a statement printed by Reuters. “We look forward to aggressively fighting these groundless, opportunistic accusations.”

Footman said he took the internship with the promise of making connections with important people in the industry and learning what it was like to produce a film. Instead, he said he researched hotels for the cast and crew, shopped online for items for the film, made coffee, took out the trash, picked up lunch and filed papers.

Footman said performing these tasks without pay violates the internship portion of the FLSA. It says an internship is to be “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment,” “for the benefit of the intern” and “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern,” among other regulations.

Footman said the tasks he did for Fox Searchlight were not of any benefit to him, but rather benefited his employer and, without interns, would have been performed by paid staff.

“You hear so little about this issue because people are worried about being seen as greedy or entitled,” Footman said.

Footman said he and another intern thought what Fox Searchlight asked them to do was illegal and decided to file a lawsuit. Footman said it is a slow process, but he felt it was the right thing to do. Back wages are a part of the lawsuit, he said, but obtaining money is not the objective.

“We want to bring publicity to this issue and get Fox Searchlight to say that it was wrong,” Footman said.

Footman is not alone in his criticism of unpaid internships.

After his own unpaid internship experience, Ross Perlin researched and wrote the book “Intern Nation,” which was released in May 2011.

He said there are up to two million internships in the United States every year, and almost half are unpaid. Thousands of these unpaid internships are also illegal, he said, a conclusion he based on his research.

“[My experience] wasn’t horrible or exploitative like some internships are, but after awhile, the sheer fact of working hundreds of hours unpaid doing core work for the organization made me start to question the whole arrangement,” Perlin said.

But he also said he realized many student interns may not be as fortunate as he was.

“It’s also very common for interns to be given tasks that they didn’t sign up for, or for an internship not to fit the original description — a kind of bait-and-switch,” he said.

David Lat, a lawyer familiar with the Fox Searchlight and Hearst lawsuits, wrote a column in favor of unpaid internships for The New York Times.

Lat had two different unpaid internships he said were beneficial to his life and career, despite the lack of pay.

“I did not feel in either of my internships I was exploited in any way,” Lat told the Lariat. “They gave me growth experience and excellent leadership opportunities.”

While Lat recognized some unpaid interns are exploited, he said the burden rests on students to protect themselves.

“To the extent that you can, try to learn about the intern program and figure out if it is a program that provides people with a great experience,” he said.

Lat also said students need to be aware of their legal rights, including the fact that, as unpaid staff, they are not protected by the same rights as paid employees.

Perlin also raised this issue and said that law does not protect unpaid interns from sexual harassment and racial discrimination, though these kinds of abuse are rare among interns.

Kevin Nall, associate director of Career Services at Baylor, said the number of unpaid internships varies between industries.

He said if a business offers an unpaid internship, it will usually require credit to be granted from an institution of higher learning.

“There seems to be a different mindset from one industry to another,” Nall said.

He said most companies in finance, accounting, professional selling and other business occupations almost always offer paid internships, while media and entertainment companies usually do not.

There are differing ideas on what should be done to combat the exploitation of unpaid interns. Lat said students should be aware of their rights and laws about internships and that government enforcement is unlikely and not practical.

“There are limited government resources,” Lat said. “They can’t go after every case.”

Footman said students shouldn’t be scared to speak out if they feel they are being exploited and hopes his lawsuit is encouraging to others in similar situations.

Perlin said students need to be aware, but he also put the responsibility on universities to examine the internships their students are getting.

Baylor is making an effort, Nall said, to better monitor student internships, especially those for class credit.

Students are encouraged to check in with a faculty member during their internships.

“Internships exist to add an experiential component to education,” Nall said.

“Learning that takes place in a work setting can serve as an effective bridge from college to career,” he said.