You’d have to be pretty desperate to offer to work for free, right? Or you could be just an enthusiastic young student who believes that toiling for little more than free coffee and a line on your resume may boost your future career. But recent research shows that unpaid internships are not likely to lead a coveted job offer.
Now, some interns are taking legal action against bosses whom they say offered nothing in return for their labor. And the courts are listening. Earlier this month, a federal judge in Manhattan cast a legal shadow over unpaid internships by certifying a class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight and Fox Entertainment Group. Two unpaid interns filed suit accusing Fox of denying them proper wages for the weeks they spent performing essentially the same duties as regular employees.
The suit reveals how youthful aspirants can be seduced into a crap job gilded with glamorous IOUs. Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman allege that as Fox Searchlight interns, they “took lunch orders, answered phones, arranged other employees’ travel plans, tracked purchase orders, took out the trash and assembled office furniture,” according to the New York Times.
The Department of Labor says that unpaid internships are supposed to balance educational experience for the intern and valuable labor for the employer. Paradoxically, under current legal guidelines, unpaid intern labor cannot include tasks that would warrant real pay, since any labor comparable to a regular job must be compensated as such.
Despite Fox’s rigorous legal denials, the suit may open avenues of recourse for many other interns and perhaps compel employers to drop unpaid internships in order to stear clear of labor violations.
So far one major payout has been issued to settle such a suit: The Charlie Rose Show recently paid a settlement totaling about $250,000 to provide back wages of roughly $110 per week for a group of as many as 189 unpaid interns.
Other major legal decisions are on the horizon. A similar suit was filed last year by a former intern at Hearst Magazines, claiming that the company violated New York State and federal labor laws by giving unpaid interns tasks with no educational value, such as opening mail for editors, sometimes for a full work week. Though a judge recently ruled that the suit did not qualify as a class action, the claims might still be pursued individually.
The real value of an internship is ambiguous. A National Association of Colleges and Employers survey found that paid internships did boost job prospects, unlike their unpaid counterparts. A majority of paid interns received a job offer afterward. But the unpaid intern experience seems more of a time suck than a springboard; unpaid interns received future paid job offers at about the same rate, just over 35 percent, as those who had not interned. [cont’d]