Fed-Up Interns Take Office Grievances to Court

Former Gawker Media interns the latest to file suit on work place practices.

June 27, 2013, 10:25 AM

June 27, 2013— -- In the latest case of interns' suing their employers, three former Gawker Media interns have filed a lawsuit against the company and its founder, Nick Denton, alleging that Gawker violated the minimum wage law by failing to pay them for their work.

Aulistar Mark, Andrew Hudson and Hanchen Lu allege that they spent at least 15 hours a week writing, editing, researching and moderating comment forums for the company's websites and "were not paid a single cent for their work," according to the complaint. The suit, filed Friday, seeks unpaid wages, overtime and spread-of-hours wages.

It does not specify a dollar amount.

"Gawker benefits from the work of its 'interns,' and without the unpaid or underpaid labor of its 'interns,' Gawker would not be able to publish the plethora of content at the Gawker Weblogs and/or would face great difficulty in doing so," the complaint states.

Their attorney, Andrea Paparella, told ABCNews.com, "The minimum wage protects citizens from outright exploitation. The law prohibits companies from enjoying free labor."

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Gawker Media, which has not responded to ABC News' requests for comment, is among other companies whose interns have recently turned to the courts with their grievances. The lawsuits suggest that hiring managers are either ignorant of labor laws, give them short shrift or willfully ignore what some observers view as clearly defined requirements.

"The question is, 'Is this person an employee?' If they're doing work for the benefit of the employer, they are," Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute think-tank in Washington, told ABCNews.com. "Instead, these [internship programs] are finding a way to get young people to work for nothing, and that's not going to satisfy the law."

Eisenbrey said the U.S. Department of Labor raised the profile of unpaid internship issues three years ago when it published a fact sheet that listed guidelines for employers to decide whether interns must be paid minimum wage and overtime in the for-profit, private sector.

The six standards that exempt for-profit private-sector employers from paying interns include when the "experience is for the benefit of the intern" and "the intern does not displace regular employees," according to the Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act fact sheet.

"Young interns and the legal community said, 'OK, here's a clear standard that we can understand, and we can bring lawsuits on this,'" Eisenbrey said. "People became aware that there were hundreds of thousands of people in this situation.

"There's a growing awareness that this is illegal and if people don't see it's immoral, at least they see its illegal," he added.

The Wage and Hour Division issued the fact sheet after receiving questions about when and how the Fair Labor Standards Act applied to interns, a U.S. Department of Labor spokesman told ABCNews.com.

"In general, the more a for-profit employer structures an unpaid internship program around a classroom or academic experience, as opposed to the employer's actual operations, the more likely the internship willbe viewed as an extension of the individual's educational experience," the spokesman said.

"However, the more a for-profit employer structures an unpaid internship program around the employer's actual operations, rather than a classroom or academic experience, the more likely the internship will be viewed as employment and the interns will be entitled to compensation."

While the act provides the guidelines for companies, National Association of Colleges and Employers spokeswoman Mimi Collins said the standards "are a little on the vague side."

"[Unpaid internships] have gone on for a long time and maybe there has not been so much attention paid to it," Collins said. "There hasn't been a lot of guidance around it. This hasn't been a prominent issue until the last few years."

The association "connects campus recruiting and career services professionals," according to its website.

Collins said the struggling economy was no excuse.

"It has nothing to do with the state of the economy. Companies have to pay their employees," Collins said.

"In terms of unpaid internships, it doesn't matter how good or how bad the economy is. There is a law that an employer has to follow in order to be qualified to offer an unpaid experience. "

Amid some concerns that closer scrutiny might encourage companies to abandon internships, interns have filed lawsuits against other media companies -- with mixed results.

A judge recently ruled that two Fox Searchlight interns who worked on the film "Black Swan" were considered to be employees and should have been paid. But in May, a New York judge dismissed a class-action suit by a group of unpaid interns against Hearst Corp., ruling that they did not meet the definition of a class but could sue as individuals.

Unpaid Summer Interns Denied Class Status By Judge

In addition, two former interns filed a lawsuit against Condé Nast June 13, claiming the company did not pay them minimum wage during their summer jobs at W Magazine and The New Yorker in 2009 and 2010.

Conde Nast has not responded to a request for comment.

While the judge acknowledged in the "Black Swan" decision that the interns benefitted from the internship with resume listings, job references and "an understanding of how a production office works," he said Fox Searchlight ultimately "received the benefits of their unpaid work, which otherwise would have required paid employees."

Fox spokesman Chris Petrikin has said in a statement that the company believes the court's rulings are "erroneous, and will seek to have them reversed by the [U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals] as quickly as possible."

Collins, of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, said it's unclear why the spate of lawsuits by unpaid interns targeted media-related companies.

Eisenbrey said in his experience, some media companies claim to be unaware of labor laws when it comes to internships. But the same companies also attract individuals seeking to get their foot in the door anyway they can, he said.

"It's a combination of the glamour factor and the willingness of the companies to flout the law or their ignorance of it," he said.

Eisenbrey said he hopes the recent cases will encourage all companies adhere to the law.

"If this little ripple became a wave, I think that could change employer behavior," he said. "If it became a wave and employers across the country had to really worry about employment law, then they would stop using [unpaid interns]," he said.

"In the alternative, the Labor Department could bring some high-profile cases against [companies] for using unpaid interns."

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