Unpaid Intern Suit Strikes a Chord at Pomona

The interns say they were used. They say that working in the movie business without pay turned out to be an exercise in making coffee and taking out trash, a far cry from the educational experience they expected. They say that their employer acted illegally, a claim they hope to prove true in a federal lawsuit they recently filed that could change the way internships work in America.

Eric Glatt and Alex Footman, the two interns who worked on the hit movie Black Swan and then sued the film’s makers, have no affiliation with the Claremont Colleges. Their story, however, sounds familiar to some 5C students who have also worked as unpaid interns for high-profile companies in entertainment and publishing. Three seniors at the 5Cs said that their internships, while not out of line with industry norms, may have been inconsistent with federal employment law.

One Pomona College senior, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the industry in which he plans to work after graduation, interned for a film production company during the summer and fall of last year. He said that he was not surprised to hear about Glatt and Footman’s allegations, which struck him as an accurate description of how some entertainment interns are treated.

“They see you as free labor, instead of hiring employees, which is illegal,” he said of movie business employers. “If they’re mad at you, they’ll send you on a stupid grunt-work thing.”

The Pomona student said that he, unlike some movie interns, spent most of his time working on projects that were as substantive and educational as he had hoped. For him, the most distressing surprise about the internship was the long hours he was expected to spend on the job. During the part of his internship that overlapped with the fall semester, he estimated that he worked 20 hours per week, not including his long driving commute.

He added that the internship took a toll on his academic life, forcing him to take a lighter-than-normal course load.

“The internship became my most important class,” he said, “I was a math minor, but after that semester, no longer.”

Iris Gardner, Internship Coordinator at Pomona, said that Hollywood has a reputation for using unpaid interns to replace paid employees, often asking them to perform menial tasks rather than helping them learn about the profession. These practices are prohibited by federal guidelines on internships, which the U.S. Department of Labor published last year.

“Employers in the entertainment industry specifically use interns for exactly what the Department of Labor tells them they shouldn’t,” Gardner said. “Telling a whole entire industry that runs this city to not do what they do is kind of tricky.”

If the court sides with Glatt and Footman in the Black Swan trial, she added, the decision could result in changes to internship practices in the entertainment industry and other fields. She said that some businesses outside of entertainment, including many law firms, have internship practices that resemble those of the movie studios.

“If they’re going to have to change, everyone’s going to have to change,” Gardner said of the entertainment business. She added that she was not sure what changes would occur, but she suggested that many unpaid internships might be converted into minimum-wage jobs.

Two Scripps seniors can attest that high-stress, questionably legal internships are not unique to the movie industry. Both women, who also wished to speak anonymously, worked long hours without pay for Teen Vogue magazine in New York during the summer of 2010.

The two friends, who compared their internship to the protagonist’s job in the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, worked together in a room that fashion publishing insiders call “the closet,” which is essentially a mailroom where interns processed the magazine’s clothing collection. They said that they were allowed just 15 minutes for lunch, were paid less than they were promised, and were spoken to condescendingly.

“The whole attitude was that we were so lucky to be there, that a million girls would kill for the job,” one of the students said. “We were basically treated like slaves.”

She added that after finishing her internship at Teen Vogue and quitting a short-lived internship at another fashion magazine, she enjoyed working as an intern for a jewelry company. There, one of her colleagues suggested that she sue Teen Vogue for overworking its interns and failing to reimburse them for transportation costs associated with the internship.

Both students said that they never seriously considered filing a lawsuit, since Teen Vogue had helped them build the connections they might need for careers in fashion. One of them lamented that frustrating internships are not only common but necessary in certain fields, including fashion publication.

“I think that when we’re 17, 18, 19, we shouldn’t be working in these fast-paced competitive environments,” she said. “There’s such an emphasis on getting experience nowadays.”

The other student said that the internship had been a good lesson in how not to act as an employer.

“We’ll be good bosses one day,” she said. “We’ll treat our interns well.”

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