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Did Fox's unpaid internship program take advantage of workers?

We've previously discussed in this Broward County Employment Law Blog whether unpaid internship programs are legal here in South Florida. Unpaid internships are legal, as long as they comply with the U.S. Department of Labor's rules.

However, it appears that these rules are either too confusing for employers to understand or they are simply ignoring them because several lawsuits about unpaid internships have arisen within the past year. One case that may be gaining steam is the one that was filed by two people who worked in unpaid positions on the set of the Oscar-winning film "Black Swan."

The two unpaid interns filed a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight in the fall, alleging that the unpaid internship program violated federal minimum wage and overtime laws. Now, they have asked a judge to let them expand the complaint to include all of the interns in Fox Entertainment Group in the class action.

A judge has yet to rule on that.

The interns allege that until July 2010--when FEG began to pay all of its interns $8 an hour--the company treated interns as employees in all facets except for one: they weren't on payroll.

Interns did, however, sign confidentiality agreements, receive coverage under workers' compensation laws and they were required to fill out I-9s.

Unpaid internship programs are only legal when an educational benefit is available for the intern, and it is not clear whether this existed at FEG. Additionally, the interns must not replace regular employees. According to the lawsuit, interns on the set of "Black Swan" filled necessary roles on the staff--such as those of production assistants, bookkeepers, secretaries and janitors.

While we await the outcome of this case, it should be a reminder to both employers and employees to ensure internship programs meet the legal standard. For employers, it can be very costly to make this mistake and be called on it later.

And while interns, eager to get their foot in the door, may be hesitant to stand up for their employment rights, they should be aware that they can always consult with an employment law attorney about filing a complaint.

Source: The Hollywood Reporter, "Fox's Entire Internship Program Now Under Legal Attack," Eriq Gardner, Aug. 13, 2012

  • Our Hollywood, Florida, law office handles cases similar to the one mentioned above. To learn more about our employment law practice, please visit our website.

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