For years, unpaid internships have been a media industry standard. But over the past couple of months, there have been a rash of lawsuits against media companies for not paying interns. Brooke investigates the state of the unpaid internship.
Mark Mothersbaugh - Let me tell you about my boat
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone, and here’s a clip from Disney's Phineas and Ferb.
[CLIP/CARL THE INTERN SONG]
Carl, he'll fix the paper jam
Carl, and he'll pick up the laundry, too.
He knows how to format, click file, text, edit.
He's working the job just for college credit.
He's Carl, the Intern
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
Unpaid interns are the subject of this segment. They’ve been in the news, as after last month’s Asiana Airline crash, when a Bay area TV newscaster pronounced the names of the pilot.
NEWSCASTER TORI CAMPBELL: They are Captain Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk and Bang Ding Ow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The National Transportation Safety Board blamed an unpaid summer intern. Did he punk the NTSB out of revenge? This was, after all, just weeks after over half a dozen lawsuits were filed by former unpaid interns agitating for back pay.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
We’re doing this story because the media biz runs on unpaid interns. The producers of the 2010 movie Black Swan used them. Last month, a federal district court judge in New York ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures should have paid two of them for their work on that film. After that, a deluge of lawsuits by former interns of W Magazine, the New Yorker, Gawker, Charlie Rose (who settled) and Atlantic Records by an intern from back in 2007, the year, incidentally, Atlantic released a new album by Rush.
The interns claimed that the employers broke the guidelines laid down in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which are, 1) the internship should be similar to training given in an educational environment, 2) the internship experience is for the benefit of the intern, 3) the intern works under close supervision and does not displace regular employees, 4) the employer derives no immediate benefit from the activities of the intern, 5) the intern is not entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship and 6) both parties understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
Judge William Pauley, who presides over the US District Court for New York's Southern District, ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated both state and federal minimum wage laws by not paying those Black Swan interns.
MAURICE PIANKO: He said that Fox Searchlight derived immediate benefit from the work of the interns, also it was displacing other workers. Under the law, they should have been paid minimum wage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Attorney Maurice Pianko specializes in bringing lawsuits for unpaid interns, who reach him through his website, Intern Justice.
MAURICE PIANKO: It might be because of the Black Swan ruling. There are just really so many more interns that have had enough of this. And the truth is, is that they were, most of the time, exploited, and they want their pound of flesh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pianko has plenty of intern horror stories, and he brought us one.
Meet Kevin Hicks, who’s suing the production company behind Nickelodeon's short-lived teenage sci-fi soap opera, Alien Dawn.
KEVIN HICKS: I actually didn’t know in the first few hours whether it was going to be a paid internship or not. And when I was told that it wasn’t, I knew that there was supposed to be some sort of element of like, oh, okay, I shouldn’t be taking out the garbage all the time and not being able to experience anything that’s educational or beneficial to me. And that's exactly what they used us for, was just bulk labor, cleaning up the garbage, carrying all the heavy cases. And we were not even allowed to be really on the set. They had us in holding, like in a separate area.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: With Maurice Pianko as his lawyer, Hicks is suing for twice the minimum wage he might have earned for his two weeks of work there.
KEVIN HICKS: For me, I'm told, a little under $2,000. That would be the total amount that I would receive in the best of possible outcomes financially for me personally.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this isn't really about the money.
KEVIN HICKS: Absolutely not, and I – I’m glad that you asked about the specifics because it makes it apparent that this is not like some kind of frivolous case of greed. I mean, it flagrantly broke the law every day that I was on that set. So I'd been talking to people about it, and it seemed to me that a lot of people know this is messed up and are either afraid to do something about it or they don't know how to go about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To avoid a lawsuit, the employer need only provide interns with an educational experience and not derive immediate advantage from their work. Of course, people may disagree on what that really means, like Stephen Colbert.
STEPHEN COLBERT: See, they’re – they’re learning stone masonry -
- from which I will not derive any immediate advantage for decades –
- until my mausoleum is completed.
MICHAEL MORONEY: Some of the best internships are the ones where you say, I hate this, because then you know that's not what you want to do with your career.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Michael Moroney, director of communications at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, recently wrote in praise of unpaid internships on CNN's website.
MICHAEL MORONEY: Even if you are just moving boxes, you're making connections. You can still be gaining value out of that. I'm sure there are producers that got their start moving boxes. So, while you might not be happy with it, I don't think suing your employer for back wages is really the right way to go about it.
BLAIR HICKMAN: You can make an unpaid internship work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Blair Hickman is community editor for ProPublica, now gathering information on what it sees as an unexplored issue hiding in plain sight.
BLAIR HICKMAN: I think the issue comes down to are they actually learning from the type of work that they're doing or are they stamping letters and packing packages, or basically running the entire operation without much guidance? Particularly in digital media, if there are eight unpaid interns and two full-time staffers, one of whom might be in sales, how much guidance are these interns really getting?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what about the long-term impact of unpaid interns in the media on the media?
BLAIR HICKMAN: If you’re very poor and you can’t afford to take an unpaid internship, are these people eventually gonna be able to make it? Or are people from those backgrounds slowly going to peter out of the media voice? You know, someone who grew up in inner city Chicago, for example, is gonna be able to do a bit of a better job covering inner city Chicago.
MICHAEL MORONEY: It is an unlevel playing field, and to, to pretend that it's not would just be incorrect. But I think there's other ways to level the playing field.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Maroney cites several organizations that assist or subsidize unpaid interns. He says interns who are exploited or abused can have a big impact by blogging and shaming their former employers, but they shouldn't sue.
MICHAEL MORONEY: I think if the interns win these suits, companies will be a little more skittish. A lot of them might end their internship programs altogether. There’ll, obviously, be some people that start paying their interns, which is wonderful. But the amount of total internships available, paid and unpaid, will almost certainly decrease.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s say he's right and paid internships increase but the total number of internships drops? How would that affect the ultimate goal, jobs? According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, this year 37 percent of graduates received real job offers after unpaid internships. But compare that to 63 percent of graduates who got offers after paid internships.
Now, NPR, a national organization, pays its interns, but many local public radio stations, including some of the biggest, like our station, WNYC, do not. We just ask our interns for heroic service, like Bill Murray’s character does in The Life Aquatic.
BILL MURRAY AS STEVE ZISSOU: What are you doin' here? I thought all you interns ran out on me.
INTERN: I want to help you find that shark.
STEVE ZISSOU: God dammit, thank you intern! You’re gettin’ an A.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I can say that many of our interns have landed jobs here. I can say that most of them really do learn something of value. But I can't say that we don't derive immediate material benefit from their work. We do. It turns out that nonprofits are exempted, sort of - there's some dispute over how much - from the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Michael Moroney, who argues in favor of unpaid internships, concedes that that life is unfair, but he suggests that’s one of the great lessons you learn from a lousy internship - when to walk, when to fight, like Outward Bound in the workplace. I guess that’s one way to spend a summer vacation.