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Pursuits

Unpaid-Intern Lawsuits Explained

Everything you need to know about the wave of lawsuits that’s endangering the existence of the unpaid internship
Unpaid-Intern Lawsuits Explained
Illustration by Jaci Kessler

Why are so many interns suing their employers?
It started on June 11, when a federal district court judge in New York ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures, a film distribution company, should have compensated two unpaid production interns for the 2010 movie Black Swan. The pair had performed basic chores such as manning phones, fetching coffee, and taking out the trash. According to the judge, “Searchlight received the benefits of their unpaid work, which otherwise would have required paid employees.” The victory opened the door for more disgruntled interns. On June 13 a former intern for W magazine and another for the New Yorker filed a lawsuit against publisher Condé Nast claiming they had been paid less than $1 an hour. On June 17 a former Atlantic Records intern filed a lawsuit against Warner Music Group citing unpaid wages for office work performed from October 2007 to May 2008. Eight former magazine interns collectively filed suit against the publisher Hearst in 2011, but the case was dismissed in May because the judge denied its class-action status. Those interns have requested an appeal.

They were just answering phones and doing errands. How much money can they possibly get?
California’s minimum wage is $8 an hour, so it’s not as if the Black Swan interns expect a windfall. According to Juno Turner, who represents the Fox Searchlight Pictures, Condé Nast, and Hearst plaintiffs, these lawsuits are more about fairness than money. Fox has plans to appeal. Both Condé Nast and Warner Music Group declined to comment on pending litigation.