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Payday for Unpaid Interns?

By:  Amy Traub and Desiree Busching

Like the fashions in the magazines on which they work and the blockbuster movies for which they assist in production, unpaid interns are becoming one of the newest, hottest trends— the new “it” in class action litigation. As we previously advised, there has been an increased focus on unpaid interns in the legal arena, as evidenced by complaints filed by former unpaid interns in September 2011 against Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc. and in February 2012 against Hearst Corporation. In those lawsuits, unpaid interns working on the hit movie “Black Swan” and at Harper’s Bazaar magazine, respectively, alleged that their high-profile employers violated federal and state wage-and-hour laws by failing to pay them for work they claim was more aptly suited for paid employees.

The newest case to hit the scene on this issue has been filed by Lucy Bickerton, a former unpaid intern of “The Charlie Rose Show” on PBS. In her March 14, 2012 complaint, Bickerton alleges that she worked for the show in 2007 for approximately 25 hours per week and that the show and its host had her performing “productive work”—work for which she claims she, and other interns like her, should have been paid.

According to a press release issued by the plaintiffs’ firm that has filed all three of these prominent unpaid intern cases, “[s]ince filing a lawsuit on behalf of unpaid Fox [Searchlight Pictures, Inc.] interns late last year, our office has received numerous calls from other current and former interns who were not paid for the productive work they performed. This [Bickerton] lawsuit should send a clear message to employers that the practice of classifying employees as ‘interns’ to avoid paying wages runs afoul of federal and state wage and hour laws.”

The clear message received is that this firm is on the offensive, and others will undoubtedly soon follow suit. For employers who have checked their unpaid internship programs to ensure that they are in compliance with the tests utilized by both federal and state agencies and courts in analyzing whether individuals qualify as “interns,” it is time to double-check. With the attention this issue is seeing in the media and before the courts, it is clear that if misclassified unpaid interns are not paid now, employers may just be paying later.