Take This Internship and . . . Pay For It

blackswaneditLast week, two unpaid interns who worked on the film “Black Swan” won a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures. The interns claimed that they should have been paid for their work, which included such important cinematic tasks as taking out the garbage, ordering lunch, booking flights for their bosses, and assembling office furniture. The judge for the federal District Court in Manhattan agreed, finding that the two interns were treated as employees and were, therefore, entitled to compensation for their time.

These days, internships are an increasingly popular option, especially for students and recent graduates who can’t find paid work in their fields. CNN Money recently reported an 8.8% unemployment rate — and an almost 19% “underemployment” rate — among recent college grads, both rates still higher than before the economic downturn began. Many young people are willing (or desperate enough) to work without pay to get their foot in the door of their chosen profession. Of course, they’d rather get paid. But if the only way to break into a field is by doing grunt work day and night without pay, some people will take that deal.

This is where the law steps in to set some boundaries. Employment law pushes back against the metric of “whatever the market will bear” to require employers to pay at least the minimum wage, to protect employees from unsafe working conditions, and to prohibit harassment, for example — even if plenty of employees might tolerate mistreatment and subsistence wages just to get and keep a job. That desperate job seekers are willing to put up with almost anything in exchange for work doesn’t mean it’s legal.

That’s what Fox learned last week, and what employers in other popular industries are starting to understand. According to an article about the case in the New York Times, similar lawsuits have been filed against television, modeling, and fashion magazine employers, claiming interns should have been paid. Employers in these sexy fields have been some of the worst offenders in not paying interns, presumably because so many people are desperate to work in film and fashion.

There’s nothing shocking about desperate job seekers or employers willing to exploit them, sadly. There’s nothing surprising about the outcome of the case, either. The law about unpaid internships is very clear. Employers may hire people to work without pay only if the job meets a strict six-part test, including that the job must benefit the intern, must not provide the employer with an immediate advantage, must be closely supervised, and must not be a required stepping stone to a paid position. (You can find details on the six factors in Am I really an intern or just an employee who isn’t getting paid?) But Fox argued that the judge should forget the factors and instead simply weigh whether the intern or the employer gained more from the arrangement. If the intern benefitted more, then it’s a legal internship. The judge was not impressed by this argument, nor by the college credits offered for some internships, nor by the fact that the interns who sued undoubtedly did learn some things about the film industry during their unpaid time at Fox.

All beside the point, as the judge made clear. The six-part test is strict for a reason: Internships are a somewhat disruptive exception to the usual workplace exchange of labor for money. As such, they are intended to be rare.