Workplace

As Summer Job Season Starts, Unpaid Interns Suffer Setback in Court


As Summer Job Season Starts, Unpaid Interns Suffer Setback in Court

Photograph by Iconica

Some interns are fed up. Giving up hope that their unpaid gigs will lead to paid jobs, they’re taking the extreme step of suing employers.

Whether this proves a smart career move in the long run remains to be seen. In the short term, a federal judge in New York has sent angry interns a discouraging signal.

In a ruling on May 8, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baer told a group of former unpaid workers for Hearst they could not sue the large publisher as a class for having failed to treat them as regular employees. While the ruling was procedural and did not address the merits of the interns’ complaints, Baer said they’ll have to take Hearst to court individually.

The proposed class would have included more than 3,000 interns who have worked at Hearst since February 2006. The interns alleged that they performed tasks similar to employees and were entitled to minimum wage and overtime protections under federal and state labor laws, reported Bloomberg BNA. Hearst said interns do not need to be paid if they’re in college and eligible for academic credit, adding that the company did provide some training and benefits.

Without class certification, the costs of filing separate lawsuits for relatively small amounts of individual damages could inhibit most of the former interns from pursuing their claims, observers say. “It’s very hard for a plaintiff’s attorney to take these cases when the value is a few thousand dollars each. Just filing the case eats up all that money,” says New York attorney Maurice Pianko, who founded the site internjustice.com.

Juno Turner, an attorney at Outten & Golden, which represents the interns, says they’re considering appealing the decision and adds that the claims will still go forward to trial. “Interns have the same rights as all employees,” she says.

The case highlights growing tension between employers and workers such as independent contractors and interns who do not receive the same benefits as employees. Other unpaid interns at for-profit companies—who claimed to have responsibilities similar to employees rather than trainees—have mobilized to gain greater rights. For instance, two unpaid interns who worked on the film Black Swan filed a class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight (NWS) in 2011 that’s still pending. Earlier this year, a former unpaid intern at Elite Model Management filed a proposed $50 million class-action lawsuit against the agency.

Prior efforts by employees to organize as a class have been denied. Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2011 not to certify a class of 1.6 million female employees against Wal-Mart (WMT) in Wal-Mart v. Dukes.

Still, Turner says, each case is fact-specific. “I don’t think this means no interns can be certified as a class. I certainly wouldn’t think that would be true of all employers.” As for compensating interns who do work that benefits an employer, “We’re talking about minimum wage here; it’s not a huge amount of money,” she says. “There are for-profit companies that pay interns. It doesn’t mean the end of internships.”

Venessa-wong-190x190
Wong is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @venessawwong.

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