“I hope this lawsuit will help reverse the trend of unpaid internships replacing entry level opportunities.”
What is it with unpaid interns these days? Specifically, ones who graduated from Wesleyan. With film degrees. Between 2008 and 2009. And want to go into the entertainment industry. In New York. They’re going mad.
Or just demanding what is rightfully theirs.
Earlier this year, we reported on the Curious Case of Alex Footman ’09, an unpaid intern on the set of Black Swan who is seeking legal action against Fox Searchlight Pictures for what he regards as improper and illegal internship hiring. He is even seeking an injunction against Fox Searchlight for hiring similarly uncompensated interns in the future. When Footman penned a New York Times op-ed supporting stricter government oversight of unpaid internships, I posed the question: are unpaid internships necessarily exploitative? How can they be made fairer? Can they?
Lucy Bickerton ’08 is the latest Wesleyan alumnus to register her frustration with the unpaid internship system, specifically of the film and entertainment industry variety. Bickerton, a documentary filmmaker, is taking legal action against PBS interviewer Charlie Rose after interning for him in 2007, the summer before her senior year at Wes:
She says she toiled away 25 hours a week from June to August 2007, researching for the host, putting press packets together, escorting the guests and cleaning up after the show.
Bickerton, who went into documentary filmmaking after she graduated in 2008, did everything an employee does except collect a paycheck, she says in the suit. State law prohibits unpaid interns unless they are being trained and not performing in place of paid employees.
Sound familiar? Nearly five years later, Bickerton claims she was entitled to compensation of at least minimum wage of $6.75 to $7.15. Appropriately, Bickerton’s lawyer says she “sought legal advice after hearing that others who had worked for no pay as interns in the media industry had sued the Hearst and Fox organizations.” Go Wes. I decided to contact Bickerton to figure out her own perspective on the suit—and what it means for Wes students. Read on for a brief interview.
What aspect of your internship with Charlie Rose did you find objectionable?
I did not find anything about my internship objectionable in terms of the responsibilities and duties I performed. Rather, I found objectionable the fact that interns are going unpaid for productive work.
What were you expecting when you went into the internship?
My actual experience as an intern in this regard was not different than what I expected going into it. I knew that I would preparing research on upcoming guests for the show’s producers, greeting and escorting guests within the studio, setting up and breaking down materials in the studio and greenroom, running errands. I would compare it to the work of a production assistant.
At what point did you decide to seek legal action?
With the recent lawsuits by other unpaid interns in the entertainment industry, I have become more educated on the legality of unpaid internships. My mother practices employment law and actually questioned the legality of the unpaid internship back in 2008. I have long been concerned about the vast number of unpaid positions that seem to be replacing entry level opportunities in the entertainment industry. I felt like I had a legitimate case, and it just felt like the time to take action on this issue.
In what ways have your experiences at Wes informed any decisions you’ve made with regard to the internship?
I think what Wesleyan instilled in me is a sense of commitment to a broader purpose, and a consideration for the widest consequences of my actions. I think it would have been easy to shy away from filing this lawsuit without this wider sense of responsibility towards improvement and change.
What are you hoping to gain from the lawsuit?
More important than remuneration for my work, I hope this lawsuit will help reverse the tide in the trend that I see of unpaid internships replacing entry level opportunities.
What advice do you have for current Wes students seeking unpaid internships?
I would encourage students to think carefully about what they will be getting out of the internship. A good internship provides training, mentorship, and an educational experience that isn’t available in a classroom setting. Their time is indeed valuable, and an internship should be a win-win situation, not free labor.
How could the internship system be improved?
Most easily, by compensating interns for their time! I think companies need to look very carefully at how they are using their interns. If their internships are not meeting the six legal criteria, then their interns should be receiving at least minimum wage. Otherwise, they need to reshape their understanding of what an internship means within their company.
This is the second entry in a loose Wesleying series on unpaid internships. Sort of.