Debating unpaid internships after federal court ruling

The decision in a case against Fox Searchlight has the potential to end unpaid internships

· June 19, 2013, 10:41 pm

Rebecca Ballantyne | DP

Millenials might be the last generation to experience unpaid internships.

On June 11, a United States federal district court judge ruled that two interns for Fox Searchlight should have been compensated for their work on the films “Black Swan” and “500 Days of Summer.” Lawsuits have since been brought against two other companies — Hearst Magazines and Condé Nast — and will force further interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The pending rulings all have the potential to affect the Penn undergraduates who intern for free during the summer months.

A rising College junior who is currently working for free at one of the companies involved in the suits said that after her first few weeks there, she has come to disagree with the concept of unpaid internships.

“It has to be a really good program for an unpaid internship to work,” she said. “It’s not like they’re overworking us or anything — they’re not — but it’s not educational.”

A central point in the Fox Searchlight case was whether the internships were educational.

Shlomo Katz, an attorney who co-authored the Thompson’s Fair Labor Standards Handbook, noted that past court rulings have generally fallen into one of two categories. Judges have either ruled that the Department of Labor’s definition of an unpaid intern should be followed or that as long as the intern benefits more from the internship than the company, then the lack of compensation is acceptable.

“There’s some disagreement about whether the intern can do any work at all,” Katz noted.

Aditi Bagchi, professor of labor law at Fordham University Law School, commented that interns who perform tasks similar to paid employees can reduce wages for those employees and affect the hiring environment.

She did, however, see value in continuing unpaid internships in general. “People don’t voluntarily work for free unless they expect to … learn something they wouldn’t in a paid position,” she wrote in an email.

Caitlin Loyd, a rising College junior who is currently an unpaid intern on Capitol Hill, agreed that what she is learning is invaluable.

“I’m currently working … [on] actual, real legislation,” she said. “Yes, they might receive more benefits than I actually get in the end but in my opinion, this is totally worth it.”

Rising Wharton junior Stephen Morgenstern enjoys working for film production company Parkes and MacDonald this summer, even though he is not being compensated.

“I knew working here would be invaluable exposure to the film business,” he explained. “I want to work in entertainment long-term and the daily interactions with staff … helps me get experience.”

Morgenstern said that he does not foresee his employers changing their internship program despite the ruling against Fox Searchlight. “The internship is for academic credit and the work is rewarding and interesting — plus, the hours are normal,” he said.

As for whether unpaid internships should be discontinued altogether, Katz felt strongly that they should not be.

“[The system] has worked for decades and there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue to work for decades more,” he said.

Comments powered by Disqus