Death of the Unpaid Internship, Part 2: Black Swan's Revenge

blackswanTwo weeks ago, my wife and I were driving home from an unsuccessful apartment hunting trip.  In an attempt to get my mind off the stress of looking for a new home, she asked me what I thought about the recent ruling in the Black Swan internship case.

For those who don't know: Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, two interns who worked on Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan sued the film’s distributor Fox Searchlight, claiming that the company’s unpaid internship program violated minimum wage and overtime laws.  They argue that they were wrongly classified as unpaid interns when they should have been paid employees.  Well about three weeks ago Federal Judge William H. Pauley III ruled in favor of Glatt and Footman, stating the two should have been paid for their work, and the failure to pay them was a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  In his opinion, Judge Pauley said that Glatt and Footman

worked as paid employees work, providing an immediate advantage to their employer and performing low-level tasks not requiring specialized training. The benefits they may have received - such as knowledge of how a production or accounting office functions or references for future jobs - are the results of simply having worked as any other employee works, not of internships designed to be uniquely educational to the interns and of little utility to the employer. They received nothing approximating the education they would receive in an academic setting or vocational school. 

Which essentially means that Glatt and Footman did not fall under the federal definition of "intern" and should have been paid as employees as a result.  Judge Pauley went on to say that even though Glatt and Footman knew what they were signing on for, the FLSA

does not allow employees to waive their entitlement to wages.... An employer is not to be allowed to gain a competitive advantage by reason of the fact that his employees are more willing to waive [FLSA claims] than are those of his competitor.

You can read the whole decision here if you like.  It's a pretty big deal and I'd be lying if I said I didn't make a celebratory fist-pump when I read the news.  [For the record, I'm only talking about internships taken by non-students, not educational internships, or volunteerism/ pro bono work]. I've made it known in the past that I'm no fan of the unpaid internship for adults who are no longer in college, which is why my wonderful and patient wife didn't bat an eyelash when, stressed out from looking at a string of ugly apartments, I snapped back, "Any company that refuses to pay employees for their work doesn't deserve to exist!"

That's a pretty militant proclamation and having some distance from the heat of the moment, I've decided that I support the content, even if the delivery and word choice don't properly communicate how I truly feel.  I shudder at the idea of being labeled an anti-corporate socialist (although I'm sure someone will accuse me of it), so allow me to clarify my stance.

  1. Unpaid internships for non-educational purposes are bad for employees because experience cannot pay the rent.
  2. Unpaid internships for non-educational purposes are bad for the market because they force entry-level workers to work for nothing, suppressing wages for everyone up the ladder, and thus reducing taxable and spendable income for workers.
  3. Unpaid internships for non-educational purposes are bad for our culture because they perpetuate the [absolutely wrong] belief that being taken advantage of is somehow the same thing as "paying your dues."

When a company elects not to pay an intern while profiting off his or her work, that tells the world that it's okay to get something for nothing, and that's not how capitalism is supposed to work.  I know first-hand what Glatt and Footman have gone through, taken advantage of and then cut loose.  The last time I wrote about this, a friend asked me if it was okay to accept an unpaid internship in the same industry she had already been working in for several years.  She had just moved to a new city and was concerned that she was an unknown commodity in her new location, despite her years of experience.  To her, the unpaid work would be a good way to break into the industry in that city and build a name.  While I understood her thought process, I strongly disagreed with her and told her to hold out for actual paying work.   To me, her willingness to go without pay signaled something rotten about how exclusionary our industries have become (especially the glamour industries like entertainment, publishing, and fashion), even to people who have experience within those industries.  Here is someone with six years of direct expertise in her field, who has skills that are immediately transferable and applicable, yet she felt that her only recourse was to start over from the bottom, as if she were a 19-year old freshman.

The longer I think about it, the less flexible I become on the matter.  Are there ever good reasons to accept unpaid work?  I'm sure someone will argue that building a reputation at the beginning of a career is a worthwhile excuse.  A few months ago I might have even been convinced.  Obviously every free-thinking adult should consider all the options before committing to a potential income drought and weigh those options based on the facts of each individual situation.  But looking at it from the macro view, I find those arguments unconvincing in the light of Judge Pauley's ruling - I personally believe you're better off finding a mentor and/or developing your own projects... you're going to be unpaid anyway, might as well develop some entrepreneurial skills while you're at it.  That's why I align myself behind the FLSA standards (found here) and feel comfortable stating categorically that unpaid internships are only acceptable when done for college credit and in conjunction with a legitimate educational institution.  The rest of the working world is starting to catch up too.  Two weeks ago, three former interns sued Gawker Media for violating the FLSA, and a few weeks before that, a former Condé Nast intern sued the company for paying her $1.00 an hour under its internship program.  Hell, one law firm is specializing in these Fair Labor internship cases by identifying individuals who held unpaid internships and reviewing the conditions of their employment for possible wage-and-hour violations.

So this is all good news right?  Well anything is possible.  It's certainly possible that the Black Swan case and all the subsequent unpaid internship cases might cause a sea change in the way employers run their internship programs.  It's possible that they'll start paying interns for their work.

But I don't really think that's going to happen.  My fear is that the current system will just continue to lurch forward in spite of the Black Swan ruling.  Or worse, companies will strip out any real work or educational opportunities and relegate interns to picking up coffee, dry cleaning, and lunch orders.  Lord knows there are enough people out there willing to bet that an unpaid internship is a lesser evil than complete and utter unemployment... I can understand that.  But the system only changes if we all make the commitment together.  I hope Glatt and Footman's win is the beginning of that change.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA