Unpaid College Interns Can Be Legal Liability They Must Be Primary Beneficiary of Work: Expert

By Belser, Ann | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), May 26, 2013 | Go to article overview

Unpaid College Interns Can Be Legal Liability They Must Be Primary Beneficiary of Work: Expert


Belser, Ann, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The interns have arrived.

You know them by their youth, the puzzled glances around the office and the misplaced shame in the question, "Do you know where the bathroom is?"

The college women may be wearing skirts that are a bit too short for the office, and there is always the college man who thinks casual Friday means wearing an American Eagle Outfitters T-shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops. (It really doesn't).

For employers, unpaid college interns also can be a legal liability.

Interns who are paid for their work, who really qualify more as summer help, are free to take on whatever duties an employer needs. But those interns who are working for free in exchange for college credit can act as chum for circling labor lawyers.

Fox Searchlight Pictures found this out with "Black Swan."

While Natalie Portman was in front of the camera in the role that won her an Academy Award, dozens of unpaid interns were working for free in roles for which they should have been paid, according to the complaint filed in September 2011 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

In the case, which is still ongoing, the interns said they performed bookkeeping work, acted as production assistants and even cleaned the offices.

"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. This practice runs afoul of basic wage-and- hour laws," the lawsuit states.

Peter Ennis, a labor lawyer with Downtown-based firm Buchanan Ingersoll who is not involved in the Fox Searchlight case, said industries in which young people desperately want to get a foot in the door have repeatedly run into problems with their use of unpaid interns. He said problems have arisen in entertainment, media, publishing, financial services and at local market television stations where interns are doing work that should be paid. …

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