Tuesday, March 20, 2012

You should pay attention to this post if you have unpaid interns

According to Law.com, wage and hour litigation is big, and getting bigger. One area that has been poised for a take-off for a couple of years is unpaid internships. Three recent filings illustrate the dangers of using unpaid interns in your business:

  • A former unpaid intern for the “Charlie Rose” show has filed a lawsuit against the host and his production company. According to Steven Greenhouse at the New York Times Media Decoder Blog, the former intern claims that she was not paid at for the 25 hours a week she worked in the summer of 2007. The lawsuit seeks a class action on behalf of all unpaid interns who have worked for the show since March 2006.
  • A former unpaid intern for the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar filed a similar lawsuit, claiming she worked full-time without any pay. Steven Greenhouse at the New York Times Media Decoder Blog quotes the lawyer who filed the lawsuit, “Unpaid interns are becoming the modern-day equivalent of entry-level employees, except that employers are not paying them for the many hours they work.”
  • Last year, two interns who worked on the film Black Swan sued Fox Searchlight Pictures making similar claims.

The New York Times’s resident ethicist, Ariel Kaminer, calls this issue “the internship rip-off.”

Two years ago, I wrote how the Department of Labor was targeting employers who use the services of unpaid interns. As these examples show, workers (and their lawyers) have caught up.

In response to this spate of lawsuits, publishing giant Condé Naste has revised its guidelines for the use of unpaid interns. From The Atlantic, Condé Naste’s interns:

  • Cannot stay at the company for more than one semester per calendar year.
  • Must complete an HR orientation about where to report mistreatment or unreasonably long hours.
  • Cannot work past 7 p.m.
  • Must receive college credit.
  • Must be assigned an official mentor.
  • No personal errands.
  • Will be paid stipends of $550 per semester.

These procedures might not be right for your organization. But, they highlight that you need to be thinking about these issues if you are a private sector, for-profit entity using, or considering using, interns. The rules haven’t changed; only they are now more widely known and are being enforced.