Editorial: Pay interns fairly


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A federal judge ruled last week that two interns who worked on Fox Searchlight’s movie Black Swan are considered to be Fox Searchlight employees and must be adequately compensated for their work.

Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, the interns in question, successfully sued Fox Searchlight and Fox Entertainment Group under the Fair Standards Labor Act and New York Labor Law. Their win could lead to more successful lawsuits by numerous other unpaid “interns” and be big trouble for the unpaid internship industry more broadly.

The Editorial Board welcomes the demise of the unpaid internship, an exploitative and often unfair institution.

According to a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than half of the graduating college seniors had held an internship of some sort. The rate of college students being hired as interns has only risen through the years.

However, the conditions under which these interns perform their duties have certainly not improved.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Labor provides six criteria that determine whether an individual may participate in for-profit internships or training programs without compensation. These six criteria, which broadly require employers to provide academic vocational training under close supervision, are woefully out of date.

The criteria are based on a Supreme Court decision from 1947 — more than 60 years ago — when the nature of apprenticeships was completely different from what they are now. Today, interns are treated less as trainees and more as conventional employees.

Internship sites must begin to compensate interns fairly for the work that they do and level the playing field in a particularly tight job market.

Perhaps unpaid internships would be easier to stomach if they were actually an effective way to secure a job. The evidence suggests that they are not.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers’ study showed that of the 55 percent of college seniors who had held an internship, only 51 percent of them were offered a job.

The benefits that paid internships can have in terms of finding employment were highlighted in the study.

Sixty-three percent of paid interns got at least one job offer. On the other hand, only 41 percent of unpaid interns received at least one offer for employment.

It is argued that internships provide valuable vocation training and other benefits to interns, such as helping them find jobs, but as Judge William Pauley III acknowledged in his Black Swan decision, those benefits are gained by working in the internship site alongside regular employees. They are not a result of any intentional, specific structuring of internship programs.

Furthermore, internships may have many drawbacks and dangers for young interns, as well as others in the workforce.

Current internship regulation has holes that leave numerous interns vulnerable to discrimination and harassment because they are unprotected by statues such as the Civil Rights Act, Americans with Disability Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

The rising popularity of unpaid internships also cements socioeconomic disparities in the labor force, because participation is limited to students who can afford to work without wages and pay for their personal expenses.

Corporations such as Fox Searchlight, which is accused of having approximately 100 unpaid interns working as substitutes for regular employees, have the ability and the incentive to replace regular workers with unpaid college interns and recent graduates — making the organizations thousands, perhaps even millions, of dollars in profits.

Reform in internship-related laws is overdue.

Employers must learn that the act of offering an internship is not an act of supreme benevolence that somehow justifies paying nothing.

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