California Unpaid Internships May Warrant Wage Lawsuits

The courts have recently seen a wave of litigation action taken by former interns across the country who say their work has essentially amounted to free labor for their respective industries, and that such actions have violated state and federal wage and hour laws. work4

Our Costa Mesa labor attorneys  recognize that part of the reason why we are seeing an uptick in these kinds of cases has to do with the fact that internships that are unpaid are fast becoming the norm.

But aside from questions of social inequality arising from this framework (i.e., there are a great many students who can’t afford not to be paid for full-time work, even over the course of a summer), problems have arisen from the fact that many companies seem to flout the six federal mandates required in order for a company to retain unpaid interns. Those requirement, per the Fair Labor Standards Act, include:

  • An educational experience. The idea is that the experience gained at an internship is akin to what might be derived in a vocational program or classroom setting. Running coffee errands and scheduling the boss’s personal appointments does not count.
  • An experience that benefits the intern. The arrangements should be established so that the intern is going to benefit more than the organization. The idea is to offer the intern professional training and development.
  • Existing employees can’t be replaced. As an example, a small business owner can’t use an unpaid intern to fill in for the work of a paid employee who is out on vacation or sick leave.
  • The employer gets no immediate benefit. If anything, an unpaid intern might actually slow production.
  • There is no promise of a job.
  • Agreement of unpaid status. Both parties need to know upfront that the work being performed won’t be paid.

These are lofty requirements, which is why many employers in the past have opted to simply pay interns minimum wage rates to get around these rules. But there are a number of industries where unpaid interns continue to be the norm.

We fully expect to continue to see a greater number of unpaid internship lawsuits in California because of a federal court ruling in New York that was handed down last month. The case, Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, started with the plaintiffs who had worked as unpaid interns on the set of the move The Black Swan alleging violations of both federal law, as well as New York Labor Law and the California Unfair Competition Law.

The plaintiffs said that they were brought on as unpaid production interns for the hit movie. However, they were instead made to perform basic chores such as answering phones, taking out the trash and fetching coffee.

The federal judge in the case ruled in their favor, saying that the film company had reaped the benefit for unpaid work that they would have otherwise had to pay someone else to do.

This victory in turn opened the doors for more unpaid interns across the country to file lawsuits as well. Among some of the other cases recently brought:

  • A New Yorker intern claiming to have been paid less than $1 hourly;
  • A former Atlantic Records intern seeking unpaid wages for office work;
  • Eight former unpaid interns from Hearst magazines have appealed an earlier ruling to deny them class action status for wage violations.

Costa Mesa employment lawsuits can be filed with the help of the Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.