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Court Ruling Could Outlaw Many Unpaid Internships

Submitted by on June 15, 2013 – 12:56 pmNo Comment

With summer upon us (and an economic downturn still firmly in place), millions of students and job seekers are turning to unpaid internships to gain experience or a foothold in business. But a new court ruling out of Hollywood could change the nature of these positions across a wide variety of industries. This week, Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that two interns for the Fox Searchlight picture Black Swan were in fact performing the duties of regular employees and should have been paid.

Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman were production interns on the Darren Aronofsky film, and are now suing the studio.

Judge Pauley urged the studios to abide by Department of Labor guidelines that state internships should be more like training programs, and should benefit the intern more than provide the company with free labor otherwise performed by paid employees.

Pauley also stated that the benefits for interns should be targeted, not incidental:

“Undoubtedly Mr. Glatt and Mr. Footman received some benefits from their internships, such as résumé listings, job references and an understanding of how a production office works,” Judge Pauley wrote. “But those benefits were incidental to working in the office like any other employees and were not the result of internships intentionally structured to benefit them.” Judge Pauley added that “Searchlight received the benefits of their unpaid work, which otherwise would have required paid employees.”

There are many arguments for unpaid internships. Foremost is that interns gain experience and connections, eventually leading to a paid position; and that if companies had to pay, they would simply eliminate the positions. Also, many add that workers are adults, and free to make their own decisions or quit.

But in reality, the internships and the economy just don’t bear out this image. Many recent college grads are bouncing from internship to internship for years without getting offers of real employment; in this state, just “walking away” is not really an option. And if companies are not viable enough to survive without the free labor, that is a whole other issue.

Also, the unpaid internship has socioeconomic implications. Ross Perlin, author of the book Intern Nation, describes this more “subtle” argument against the practice:

 Those who can’t access internships, those who can’t pay to play, who can’t afford to work unpaid for significant amounts of time … those people are being left behind, and they’re unable to enter a lot of key professions in the white-collar workforce. Professions like politics, media, film, and entertainment. There is a social justice issue here. If you have the gateway into the workforce being something where you have to come from a well-off-enough background … people who are from [big cities] where internships are concentrated and have a place to live or are from families that have the money to enable somebody to work unpaid for a summer or six months or even a year, those people are at a serious advantage.

What do you think of this latest court ruling against unpaid internships?

[via the New York Times]

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