‘Black Swan’ Interns Sue Over Unpaid Labor

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that unpaid internships can suck, but are they illegal? Former Black Swan interns Alex Footman and Eric Glatt think so. The two men are filing a federal lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures for violating labor laws by hiring unpaid interns to do the menial work typically associated with internships — fetching coffee, taking out trash — which they argue should have been done by paid employees instead. And while some have scoffed that that Footman and Glatt shouldn’t complain about “paying their dues” as many film industry vets have before them, the law may actually be on their side. Read more after the jump.

According to the New York Times, the lawsuit alleges that the studio broke the law by not meeting the Department of Labor’s legal guidelines for unpaid internships. Among the requirements are “that the position benefit the intern, that the intern not displace regular employees, that the training received be similar to what would be given in an educational institution and that the employer derive no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities.”

Footman, who worked as a production intern on Black Swan from October 2009 to February 2010, claims that his responsibilities included making coffee, taking lunch orders, and cleaning the office. Glatt, a former accounting intern, was expected to prepare petty cash reports and track missing information in employee personnel files. I’m not a legal expert, nor am I privy to all the details of the case, but it sounds to me like their duties do potentially violate the rules, particularly the one about employers not gaining an “immediate advantage” from the interns’ work. Footman and Glatt are currently seeking class-action status for their lawsuit, which asks for back pay for themselves and Fox Searchlight’s other unpaid interns, as well as a court order stopping the studio from illegally using unpaid interns in the future.

Lawyers for the movie industry have defended the usage of unpaid interns in the past by pointing out that the internships are a useful stepping stone for those who wish to break into the industry, and that the Labor Department’s rules are obsolete and rarely enforced.

On the one hand, unpaid internships are a very commonly accepted practice in the film industry as well as other prestigious fields, so it’s easy to dismiss Footman and Glatt’s complaints as the mere whining of a couple of disgruntled workers. A great many people have gotten their start in unpaid internships, after all, to the extent that it’s become a sort of rite of passage. And even if Footman and Glatt spent much of their time doing menial labor, it could be argued that they reaped some benefits in turn, by gaining experience for their resumes, learning about the production process, meeting people who could help them land their next gigs, and so on. (From Russ: Most valuable of all, they’re a chance to prove that you can suck it up  and do the work, even when the work sucks, and possibly demonstrate some initiative along the way.)

On the other, just because unpaid internships are widespread doesn’t mean they’re right, legally or ethically. While there are plenty of unpaid internships out there that really do benefit the intern (I myself have been lucky to hold such a gig in the past, though not within the film industry), I’ve also heard plenty of horror stories from all industries about interns serving as mere free labor and gaining next to nothing from their experiences. Footman clearly believes his experience falls into the latter category. “The only thing I learned on this internship was to be more picky in choosing employment opportunities,” he said. Moreover, unpaid internships arguably give an unfair advantage to those who can afford to work for free, whether because they’ve saved up enough money or have families generous and wealthy enough to support them.

Whichever way the case goes, however, I’d think the best bet for people considering unpaid internships is to follow this advice put forth by IFC’s Matt Singer: “[D]on’t stick around if you feel like you’re wasting your time, and don’t do something for free that other people around you are getting paid to do.” There’s a difference between making a few sacrifices and being taken advantage of, and while the former shouldn’t scare off anyone who really wants to be part of the film industry, the latter shouldn’t be considered a prerequisite for achieving success.

Discuss: Are Footman and Glatt in the right, or do you think they’re just being whiny? Have you had any positive or negative internship experiences in the industry?

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