Are the Days of Hiring Unpaid Interns Numbered?

3 min read
This story originally appeared on PR Daily

Most people remember "Black Swan" for Natalie Portman's Oscar-winning performance, but the movie has a farther-reaching legacy for the hardworking unpaid interns of the world. 

Two interns who worked on that movie sued 20th Century Fox and won. The Atlantic Wire has the skinny on the ruling: 

Indeed, it's the first time a major U.S. court has ruled that zero dollars for legitimate work does not a legal unpaid internship make. "Considering the totality of the circumstances," reads the ruling from federal judge William Pauley, the plaintiffs, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, "were classified improperly as unpaid interns and are 'employees' covered by" the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as well as New York's labor laws. The judge added: "They worked as paid employees work, providing an immediate advantage to their employer and performing low-level tasks not requiring specialized training." 

Does this mean the end of the unpaid internship? Maybe. The ruling is already having some major effects.

The Atlantic Wire reported Thursday that two former interns at magazine publisher Condé Nast have hired the same attorneys as the "Black Swan" plaintiffs and have filed suit for back pay. Those interns were paid, but only something in the area of $12 per day. They're seeking class-action status. 

"Precious" director Lee Daniels and Philly Post columnist Victor Fiorillo are among the voices speaking up in defense of unpaid internships in the wake of the ruling. 

"I've been at it for a long time, and I've always had interns to work for free, and I worked for free," Daniels said. 

Rumblings over whether unpaid internships are fair certainly aren't localized to Hollywood, either. There have been plenty of discussions within the PR field. Efforts to bring the issue to the forefront have been going on for years. A survey conducted last year found that 23 percent of PR interns weren't paid at all, and only 28 percent were paid at or above minimum wage. 

No one is saying you have to pay Google-level intern wages, but if you're looking to pay your interns a low wage, you're going to have to formally teach them something. Part of the judge's ruling had to do with the notion that although those interns learned a lot on the job, "those benefits were incidental to working in the office like any other employee and were not the result of internships intentionally structured to benefit them," the ruling states. 

The bottom line is this: You're probably better off paying your interns. The cost in wages is marginal compared with the potential cost of legal fees or the PR damage a disgruntled "free" worker might inflict upon your organization in the age of social media. 

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