“[Fox Searchlight Pictures] received the benefits of their unpaid work, which otherwise would have required paid employees.” – Judge William H. Pauley III on the suit brought against Fox by Eric Glatt ’91 (below) and Alex Footman ’09
In September 2011, we posted about two Wesleyan alumni, Alex Footman ’09 and Eric Glatt ’91 who brought a class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures. The two argued that, when they interned on the set of Black Swan, they performed menial tasks exclusively that had no educational value. By law, unpaid internships must provide some sort of educational experience and cannot simply be used to replace paid employees with unpaid labor. The two interns argued that they had not received the educational experience they should have gotten from the experience.
Just recently, Federal District Court Judge William H. Pauley III ruled that, as Fox Searchlight Pictures treated the workers as if they were regular paid employees and did not provide any sort of educational value to the internship, the interns should have been paid. The judge explained his logic to The Hollywood Reporter:
Lee ’10: “If I ever become a famous filmmaker, I promise I will pay my interns.”
Wesleyan is in the New York Times this weekend. So are unpaid internships. It’s not what you think.
First there was the story of Alex Footman ’09, the aspiring filmmaker and Wesleyan graduate who served as unpaid production intern on the set of Black Swan in 2009 and later brought a highly publicized open class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures for labor exploitation. (Footman penned a New York Times op-ed in February, imploring the Labor Department to “take this matter seriously and step in to enforce its regulations.”) Then there was Lucy Bickerton ’08, the latest Wesleyan alumnus to turn an entertainment industry internship into a well-publicized lawsuit. Bickerton interned for PBS interviewer Charlie Rose in 2007. She “did everything an employee does except collect a paycheck,” she now claims. So, half a decade later, she’s suing for the minimum wage compensation she says she is owed.
The latest New York Times piece, headlined “Jobs Few, Grads Flock to Unpaid Internships,” casts an eye on the circumstances that lead to these lawsuits. It mentions Eric Glatt, the 40-year-old intern who sued Fox Searchlight with Footman, but not Footman himself or Bickerton. Its point: unpaid internships are no longer the domain of the summer vacation. Rather, in this job market, “many college graduates who expected to land paid jobs are turning to unpaid internships to try to get a foot in an employer’s door.” And today, postcollege internships are available not only in nonprofit work, but also in “fashion houses, book and magazine publishers, marketing companies, public relations firms, art galleries, talent agencies,” and even some law firms.
It doesn’t take journalist Steven Greenhouse ’73 long to arrive at the exploitative side of the practice. (Edit: frequent commenter John Wesley writes in to let me know that the article’s author is an alumnus as well.]
“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.
Debate: is it time for the unpaid intern to rise up?
Most students leave their unpaid internships with a few bullet points on a resume, maybe a letter of recommendation—standard mementos from a few months spent running errands or exploring the sensual world of data entry. Not so for Alex Footman ’09, who emerged from his internship on the set of Black Swan with an open class-action lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures and national media coverage. Not bad for a lowly intern, eh?
We reported on the lawsuit in November, when NPR picked up the story. The gist of it is simple: Footman, an aspiring filmmaker, claims that his six-month internship with Black Swan was nothing more than unpaid labor (preparing coffee, taking lunch orders, running errors); that “it was not a learning experience” or one that advanced his career in any way; and that Fox Searchlight had broken minimum wage and overtime laws by using unpaid interns without providing any educational value in return. (Labor laws presently permit employers to hire unpaid interns as long as they provide a reasonably valuable educational experience in return.)
So he’s suing not only to be paid for the hours he worked, but also to prevent Fox Searchlight from using intern labor in the future.
That about brings us to this week, when Footman penned a New York Times op-ed arguing for increased government regulation of unpaid internships and active enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act. “The expectation that interns can regulate this practice,” Footman claims, “is absurd.” They have, after all, neither the work experience nor the legal expertise to rail against a system that’s exploiting them:
On the heels of yesterday’s inspirational article about SHOFCO comes another bit of Wesleyan publicity in the Gray Lady. This one’s got a bit of a darker tinge though, telling of an internship that culminated far short of perfection.
Alex Footman ’09, a film studies major, landed a coveted position as a production intern for the widely-acclaimed hit Black Swan. Yet it seems Footman’s role was a bit more minor than someone aspiring to break into the film industry might hope for: apparently, it consisted largely of “preparing coffee for the production office, ensuring that the coffee pot was full, taking and distributing lunch orders for the production staff, taking out the trash and cleaning the office.”
Alleging a violation of the “federal labor department’s criteria for unpaid internships,” Footman and another disgruntled former intern have filed suit against Fox Searchlight, “seeking back pay under federal and state wage laws [and] an injunction barring Fox Searchlight from improperly using unpaid interns” in the future.
Click here for the rest of the article. And maybe consider a double major.