Does the Successful Lawsuit of Two Unpaid Interns Mean the End of the Internship?

After a pair of unpaid interns who worked on the set of Black Swan won a lawsuit over wages this past Wednesday (with the help of Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation), people are beginning to wonder—is the unpaid internship nearing its much deserved fate?

A New York district court judged ruled in favor of two interns who sued Fox Searchlight Pictures for hundreds of hours of unpaid work. One of the two interns who filed suit, Eric Glatt, sought legal advice from Ross Perlin after learning that his unpaid internship had been illegal. Perlin put Glatt in touch with Adam Klein, a lawyer who went on to successfully argue that Glatt's unpaid work was illegal under US labor law.

Perlin, in an article for TIME, argues that Glatt's experience was typical and explains the legal workings of the case:

Most interns at for-profit companies are entitled to be paid minimum wage and overtime, and to receive the same workplace protections as other employees. Those rights date back to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the central piece of legislation that protects American workers. A 1947 Supreme Court decision, Walling v. Portland Terminal, established a narrow, common-sense exemption for those enrolled in a genuine training program. But few internships these days are serious about training, and — as in this case — most don’t even pretend. ... Unscrupulous employers quietly drove a truck through the Walling loophole; schools made it official with academic credit and internship fairs; government looked the other way; and desperate young people have to play along.

The Daily Beast's David Freelander worries that the ruling will lead to internships' restructuring, rather than their elimination altogether. As Perlin points out, if a company can successfully argue that their interns recieve training in their desired field, and the labor performed by interns does not replace that of paid workers, that company does not have to pay interns. Glatt, whose duties amounted to taking out the trash and filling staff's lunch orders, obviously gained no experience in the film industry and did work that would have gone to a paid assistant had he and his fellow interns not been hired. But other interns—for example, those doing unpaid on-the-job "training" as a part of a school program—may have a harder time arguing their cases.

Regardless, Glatt's victory represents a turning point in internship culture. Companies may now face legal consequences when looking to exploit those desperate for work. As Perlin said to Freelander, companies must now always worry, "Who is the next intern that is going to sue?" Perhaps, out of that fear, much needed change will come.

Visit TIME and the Daily Beast to read the articles in full.

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