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A “black swan event” is one that comes as a surprise and has a significant effect. An “intern” is often defined as a student or graduate undergoing some type of supervised training or work. What is not included in the dictionary definition, however, is that they are–more often than not–unpaid. And that sometimes they are worked extremely hard. However, a recent federal court ruling may provide a glimmer of hope for the typical, overworked and underpaid intern, as two interns who worked on the film Black Swan won a case–on summary judgment, no less–against Fox Searchlight for working without pay on the film.
The two interns, Alex Footman and Eric Glatt, claimed [PDF] that Searchlight’s unpaid internship program violated overtime and minimum wage laws. The lawsuit grew as plaintiffs who worked on other Fox Searchlight films joined. The interns won after the judge determined that Searchlight was, in fact, the interns’ “employer” under New York labor laws as well as the Fair Labor Standards Act. This was based on Searchlight’s power to fire the production staff of the film, the close ties of the crew to Searchlight, and Searchlight’s close supervision of the work done for the film. The judge also found support for his decision in the fact that the interns worked just like paid employees, providing immediate benefits to the company, performing low-level tasks that did not require specialized training, and receiving no educational or academic benefits.
Some might say this is a “black swan” event, but is it really? It may seem surprising that interns could this pull off, since unpaid internships are extremely common and are often considered a rite of passage in joining a field. It is also common knowledge that interns are expected to work extremely hard. But these facts also explain why the result in this case is not that surprising. With so many interns out there working so hard for free, some argue that it is about time some of them tried to get paid–especially when their duties so closely mirror the responsibilities of employees. Either way, this lawsuit may very well have a significant effect. Other similarly situated interns might work up courage to try something similar. In fact, as Warner Music has just found out, some already have: former intern Justin Henry sued for unpaid minimum and overtime wages. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for interns, at least in the entertainment industry. Perhaps the days of the overworked and underpaid intern are coming to an end.
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