Former Fox Searchlight intern Eric Glatt won a major victory for unpaid interns last week when a judge ruled interns are employees entitled to at least minimum wage.
We spoke to the former “Black Swan” intern recently about unpaid internships, and about his lawsuit against Fox — which is now moving forward as a class action.
Glatt, 43, accused Fox of continued violations of labour protections for unpaid interns like him in 2009 when he was working on “Black Swan.” At the time, Glatt says, he suspected his lack of compensation as an “accounting clerk with the word intern tacked on the end” was illegal. His tasks were, he said, normal entry-level accounting clerk duties.
“If I wasn’t there, either the rest of the staff would have had to work longer hours or they would have hired someone else to do it,” says Glatt.
It wasn’t until a year later in April 2010 when he came across a New York Times article, which detailed six internship criteria from the Department of labour, that a light bulb went off. Employers must meet those criteria in order to get away with having unpaid interns.
By Glatt’s logic, his internship with Fox Searchlight had violated all six of the criteria in the unpaid intern test.
The criteria said the internship had to be similar to the training given in a vocational school or academic institution; that the employer should derive no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities; and that an intern should not displace regular paid workers.
“When I saw this article, I realised that this wasn’t some fuzzy grey area. The six federal legal criteria proved that my internship was cut and dry wrong, illegal,” Glatt told us.
“I realised why no one was raising a red flag. Most people in an internship aren’t 40, most people are early on in their careers. Even if they object they probably recognise that if their sole goal out of college is to work in the industry, this is the necessary thing they have to do.”
Glatt was infuriated and filed a lawsuit, feeling that he was uniquely positioned to do so given his older age and legal knowledge. (He is now enrolled in law school as a Public Interest Fellow at Georgetown University.)
Glatt knew that filing an independent claim would result in a settlement amounting to “a drop in the bucket” for Fox Searchlight. Moreover, nothing about the unpaid nature of internships would change. So, he filed a proposed class action.
His decision was initially met with outrage. Glatt says some people tacked him as “a whiny kid who didn’t appreciate the opportunity he had.”
Now he’s been hailed as a hero for unpaid interns.
While Glatt hasn’t won his lawsuit against Fox Searchlight, the judge granted an important incremental victory by ruling interns need to get paid and that he can pursue the case as a class action.
Since the ruling, he says the reaction has been markedly different. With job openings scarce for young people, the average hourly wage for a worker coming out of college lower than a decade ago, and college graduates shouldering a trillion dollars in college loan debt, “the feedback [to the ruling] has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s an injustice that employers are earning money off of what amounts to a crisis for other people.”
He says that job boards continue to be littered with employers looking for skilled, experienced workers they don’t want to pay, and some lack even a semblance of “educational value.”
Glatt hopes college graduates don’t undersell themselves in the labour market and learn to target their job search to paid opportunities.
“One of the things that is so pernicious about unpaid internships is that they signal to employers that you don’t recognise the value your labour provides,” says Glatt. “Who can blame college students? When you’re young and haven’t been paid yet, you think that being smart, hard-working, and determined doesn’t matter. You think, ‘I’ve only had school learning, why should they pay me?’ Employers take advantage of that.”
The ruling last week could make it easier for unpaid interns to sue employers. The judge’s decision is also an opportunity for employers to critically think about how they structure their internship programs. Glatt encourages employers to proactively go to the Department of labour and ask an administrator to review their program to determine if it is in compliance.
Ultimately, his goal is to have the practice of having unpaid internships be eliminated completely.
“The wages that have been stolen from thousands of hard-working people lie in the pockets of employers,’ says Glatt. “This is entry-level work that is productive and necessary, being performed across the country and someone is simply slapping the word ‘intern’ across it. I want that to end.”
Fox issued this statement to the Hollywood Reporter after last week’s ruling:
“We are very disappointed with the court’s rulings. We believe they are erroneous, and will seek to have them reversed by the 2nd Circuit as quickly as possible.”
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