Unpaid internships bring lawsuits, change

“I don’t think it’s necessarily fair,” Justin Farshidi, a University of Southern California senior,said to a class of his disgruntled peers who nodded their heads in support.

Farshidi was among 20 students discussing unpaid internships in his communication class focused on ethical issues within the shifting media landscape.

In the class students discussed ethical topics they felt were most pertinent to their lives. All the students agreed on debating the advantages and disadvantages of unpaid internships.

When asked if they had or currently had an unpaid internship, every student raised their hands. Most of the unpaid internships were either in the media or entertainment industry.

“Internships are necessary if you want to break into the field, especially within journalism,” Farshidi said, “and when the majority [of internships are] unpaid I just didn’t feel like I had a choice.”

Recently the conversation over unpaid internships has reached past college classrooms and into the courts. In the last year lawsuits filed by unpaid interns have resulted in losses for employers, both financially and in the realm of public opinion.

On June 11, a New York federal court ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage laws by not paying interns who assisted the company with 2010’s “Black Swan,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Though the federal government has specific guidelines on the criteria for unpaid internships, in practice they have not always been followed.

In light of the lawsuit rulings, students holding unpaid internships and employers recruiting interns must better define the relationship between the two.

Regulated but not restricted

Each morning USC junior Chelsea Stone wakes up at 7:15 and drives 45 minutes to be at her unpaid Vanity Fair internship by 8:30 a.m. When she arrives she is usually one of the first people in the office.

After preparing her boss’ office, she collects a media roundup for the day, which includes gathering celebrities’ tweets and birthdays. In addition to general office management, she scans other entertainment magazines to track all the credits her boss has received and transcribes and logs interviews. She works 24 hours a week at her unpaid internship.

“Though unpaid I feel like I’m an integral part of the workplace just because the office is really small,” Stone said.

Before Stone leaves the office at the end of her shift to start working her second job, which is paid, she makes a list of tasks that must be completed for the next day.

Stone’s internship at Vanity Fair, however,  will be cancelled in 2014 because Condé Nast, the company that owns the magazine, announced in October that  it would discontinue its internship programs.

According The New York Times, Condé Nast was sued in June by two former interns who claimed they were being paid below minimum wage. However, as a current intern, Stone said the pending lawsuit against the company has not affected her positive outlook on her internship.

“It definitely shows you the inner workings of the industry,” Stone said. “I’ve definitely got to see things I wouldn’t have seen had I not been an intern.”

Though internships have been offered for generations, they were not officially regulated until the middle of the twentieth century.

In 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Walling v. Portland Terminal Co. that every employee is entitled to a minimum wage and there are six factors to consider when determining the legality of an internship program.

Overall, the U.S. Department of Labor law states that internships must primarily benefit the intern, including offering training that is comparable to an educational environment. The intern must not displace regular employees, and the employer cannot gain an immediate advantage from the interns’ activities.

California state labor law currently aligns with this federal law, but employers can exempt payment for students as long as they gain academic credit.

Yet C. K. Fields, a USC Marshall School of Business professor who teaches employment and business law classes, said it is difficult to regulate the labor law standards on internships.

“I don’t think anyone has ever adopted the definition [of a legal internship] because you’re asking a business to provide an entry-level experience and engage a student in something creative and challenging,” Fields said. “Work doesn’t happen that way.”

‘I know it when I see it’

Though Stone is receiving school credit for her Vanity Fair internship, she acknowledges that unpaid compensation is not desirable.

“I understand the experience is really valuable and worth it,” Stone said, “but it’s difficult to work that much and not get any tangible reward.”

Despite its rewards, Solomon Gresen, an attorney who has tried multiple employment law cases, said unpaid internships take advantage of undergraduates trying to break into the field of their dreams.

He compared the latest coverage over illegal unpaid internships to a statement by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when describing pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

“They’re exploiting youths with the promise that they will get into an industry,” Gresen said. 

Yet advocates for unpaid internships believe employers and the company as a whole benefits from the process. 

“Unpaid internships allow the employer to gage the work ethic of the intern and screen for the right person,” Fields, who believes unpaid internships are fair, said.

Despite the differences in viewpoints, some involved in the internship program are witnessing a change. Lauren Opgenorth, assistant director of internships and programs at the USC Career Center, said certain media and entertainment companies, such as NBC Universal, are now offering paid internships when they previously did not.

The Hollywood Reporter, which is a popular internship program for USC students, recently made their unpaid internship program into a paid position beginning in the spring.

Gary Baum, a senior writer at THR who is responsible for vetting and hiring interns, said the company has been looking to transform the program in recent years.

“It’s always better to pay,” Baum said. “We want to offer this opportunity to the widest level and array of students as possible. We did not want to make it a burden to take on an unpaid internship, so we eliminated the unpaid part.”

Interning for the future

Many experts said they are apprehensive that the recent lawsuits would completely change industries’ views on unpaid internships, but were hopeful. 

“Eventually they’re going to get sued enough that they’re going to have to pay them or take a more active interest in making sure the internship is to the benefit of the intern and not the company,” Gresen said.

In addition, college students’ diversity in skillsets  would be key inchanging the tide of unpaid internships.

“The intern has to offer a creative skill or something exceptional in order to get paid because few students really have such strong skills in a select area,” Fields said.

Though students must consider many factors, Fields said each individual student must determine the importance of taking on specific internships, and weigh the benefits and disadvantages of it being paid or unpaid for themselves.

“It’s incumbent upon the student to select an internship,” Fields said, “and for them to deem if it will be an ultimately valuable and meaningful experience that will serve them in the future.”

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