Black Swan Unpaid Interns Sue Fox Searchlight

Written by Robert G. Brody on October 21, 2011

Unpaid internships were recently brought back into the spotlight, as two interns for the Oscar winning movie Black Swan brought a lawsuit claiming Fox Searchlight did not pay them properly.  With this issue making headlines, more interns might be saying “Hey, that sounds like my internship” and may decide to complain. 

In the film industry, unpaid internships are commonplace, and are almost necessary to get your foot in the door.  Two men, along with hundreds of other people, were hired as unpaid interns during the production of the movie, one in the accounting department and one in the production department.  The interns say they did such tasks as make spreadsheets, review personnel files, get coffee, empty the trash and other secretarial work. 

As we previously mentioned, both state and federal laws set out specific guidelines for unpaid internships.  The purpose of an internship is purely educational which often involves receipt of college/graduate school credit for the internship.  The employer should derive no benefit from the intern’s presence; in fact, the intern should be a burden to the employer.  Interns cannot replace a worker who would otherwise be doing that work.  They should not expect or be promised a job upon completion of the internship. 

In this case, it seems as though the Black Swan interns were clearly doing menial work that should have been completed by paid employees.  The plaintiffs are suing for back pay and injunctive relief, stopping Fox Searchlight from using unpaid interns improperly in the future. 

Employers should remember that just because it is common in your industry to use unpaid interns does not mean it is legal.  The federal government, as well as many state governments, recently began cracking down on illegal unpaid internships.  You should audit your practices to ensure your interns are truly gaining educational experience (without displacing a paid worker). 

Brody and Associates regularly advises management on complying with state and federal employment laws including wage and hour laws.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.

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About the Authors

Robert G. Brody is the founding member of Brody and Associates, LLC. He has been quoted and published in national publications and appears as a guest T.V. commentator on contemporary Labor and Employment issues. Learn More