Lawsuit sparks new regulation on interns’ pay
With constant changes in the economy, it seems that more students every day are willing to take unpaid internships to get their foot in the door of the real work world.
This transitional path could be in jeopardy, however, as a federal judge in New York recently ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage laws in the lawsuit filed by two interns who worked on the production of the 2010 movie “Black Swan.”
“The United States Department of Labor has set out six criteria to be considered in determining whether trainees or interns at for-profit businesses are, as a matter of law, employees covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (and therefore subject to the statute’s minimum wage and overtime pay obligations),” said UH Law Center professor Ronald Turner.
The criteria that the internship must meet is similar to training that would be provided in an educational environment; the experience is a must for the benefit of the intern. The intern does no replace regular employees and works under the close supervision of the existing staff, and the employer providing the training derives no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities. The employer’s operations may be impeded on occasion, therefore the intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship. Lastly, the employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
“Every job will entail things that aren’t part of the job description,” said University Career Services’ Internship Coordinator Priyanka Raut. “Even as full-time employees, we are doing things which are not really a part of our job description. It’s an overall experience.”
UCS is in the process of reviewing its policies surrounding the issue, but continues to accept paid as well as unpaid internship postings, said UCS Director David Small.
“UCS routinely sends companies a copy of the Department of Labor fact sheet which addresses ethical and legal questions associated with internships and, advise companies that they will miss out on many qualified internship candidates if they offer only unpaid internships,” Small said.
“Over 74 percent of UH students work, and most cannot give up a source of income for an unpaid internship.”
Employers across the nation have been changing their policies regarding internships. A local example is the Houston Chronicle, which recently switched from offering unpaid to paid internships after re-evaluating its program last year.
“We decided that the interns should be paid for their efforts because they were performing professional work, and we were using their work in our newspaper and on our websites,” said Houston Chronicle senior editor Dan Cunningham. “The lone drawback to paying the interns is that we had to limit the size of the class to eight students per semester, which means that fewer students will be able to experience our program.”
Some students believe that this drawback comes at a high cost.
“As an art student, I know how hard and competitive jobs in my field are,” said art senior Nohelia Vargas.
“Getting into some industries is harder than into others. I don’t see a way of getting experience while networking and making important connections in many fields, if not through unpaid internships.”