Judge Forces Fox to Pay Black Swan Interns

A New York Federal Judge is forcing Fox Searchlight Pictures to pay two unpaid interns who worked on the film Black Swan. While this might be a win for these two interns, enforcing labor law like this, in this economic climate, will severely limit opportunities for young people looking to get experience going forward. A better solution is to eliminate minimum wage laws.

The judge accused Fox of improperly classifying the employees as unpaid interns under FLSA and New York labor law. Obviously applying FLSA to interns and making employers liable for back pay if their unpaid interns do certain tasks will severely disincentivize unpaid internships.

The best argument I’ve found for forcing employers to pay their interns is articulated well by Jezebel commenter Upper-Middlebrow:

I do not agree with unpaid internships in principle, they flood “desirable fields” (media, fashion, journalism, etc) with privileged kids who could not possibly constitute the majority of the best qualified, hardest-working candidates, and close the door in the face of many prospectives. It’s a classist system that, I think, it bad for both the industry and the prospective employees. I think Grace Coddington said as much recently, that the interns they have are not the hard-working kids they used to see. Not hard to imagine why unpaid interns at a fashion magazine in Manhattan would not have the strongest work ethic.

While it seems true on its face that unpaid internships are classist because they’re only available to kids who can afford to work for free, real life is rarely that simple. Many kids work two jobs, one paid, and one free, to support themselves while they get valuable experience in crowded fields.

Also, is it really true that unpaid interns tend to be more privileged while paid internships are full of poor kids? Something tells me that to be in college and working an internship puts you in the upper stratospheres of class and privilege, and that quarreling about levels at that point is kinda pointless.

Internships are generally unpaid when the demand for the roles way outstrips the supply. And free internships generally turn into not-well-paid jobs (i.e. media, fashion, journalism) where the remuneration is in the fun and prestige and not the salary. So it doesn’t really work out that unpaid internships lead to a situation where the poor are crowded out while the rich get richer. In fact, internships in the highest paid fields are, in fact, paid, and for the same reasons (demand/supply).

Lastly, I really want to look at the effects minimum wage laws have had on the availability of internships. Generally speaking, and in my experience, interns just aren’t as valuable as employees. They’re available for a limited period of time and generally have little-to-no work experience. So it makes no sense to pay them the same. And yet, the government forces employers to pay them either what they’d pay an employee, or nothing at all.

Getting rid of the minimum wage might make the whole unpaid internship thing mostly moot, as employers and interns could work together to determine just how valuable each is to the other, without government interference.

I just can’t help be really irritated with the guys who brought suit against Fox.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Mr. Glatt, who has an M.B.A. from Case Western Reserve University. “I hope that this sends a very loud and clear message to employers and to students doing these internships, and to the colleges that are cooperating in creating this large pool of free labor — for most for-profit employers, this is illegal. It shouldn’t be up to the least powerful person in the arrangement to have to bring a lawsuit to stop this.”

You signed up for an unpaid internship! Why are you acting like you were coerced? Also, you’re a white male with an MBA. Please don’t pretend to be put upon.

Update: 8/27/2020: Shoutout to Lisa Griffin for helping me fix a broken link!

One Comment

  1. Arnold

    I would disagree with your argument that anyone who goes to college is in the privileged class. But even if you don’t agree with that point there are certainly different levels of privilege within college attendees, even at elite schools. I’ve seen far too many examples of students who come from wealthy families being able to take unpaid internships during the summer while those who don’t have the same level of privilege have to work in retail or in restaurants during the summer.

    This then leads to further separation of the classes and limits mobility between them because the students from wealthy families have several internships that provide relevant experience, help them make contacts, and build a resume far beyond those who were forced to work during summers to pay for college and living expenses. Even ignoring the fact that students from wealthier families frequently have connections to people in government and industry that can lead to better job market outcomes than those who don’t, this is an inherently unequal system.

    I don’t know what to do about it (if anything) but we should at least acknowledge the unequal opportunities afforded to students by the fact that unpaid internships are quickly becoming a necessary condition for working in many fields after graduation.

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