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Unpaid Interns Strike Back: Gawker, NBC Sued

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on July 03, 2013 12:56 PM

It's not just movie studios facing unpaid intern lawsuits. Now Gawker Media and NBC Universal are being sued by ex-interns as well.

The new lawsuits are sequels, of sorts, to the Fox Searchlight Pictures case, in which a judge ruled the company violated federal and state minimum wage laws by not paying interns who worked on the movie "Black Swan."

The string of cases cropping up signals a warning to business owners who rely heavily on unpaid internships.

Payback Time?

In the Gawker case, three former interns allege 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, ABC News reports.

The NBC lawsuit is bigger and bolder. It seeks unpaid wages for hundreds of interns who worked at the company over the past three years at the network's cable channel, MSNBC, and on shows like "Saturday Night Live," according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Both complaints essentially argue that the interns were augmenting and displacing the regular workforce, but weren't getting paid for it -- a cardinal labor law sin.

Legal Requirements for Unpaid Interns

As we've discussed before in the context of the "Black Swan" case, using unpaid interns can be OK under certain circumstances. Just make sure:

  • The interns aren't displacing or augmenting your normal workforce by having them do the work a regular employee would do.
  • The internship is educational. If the interns are just grabbing coffee and answering phones, that's no good. Add workshops and mentoring sessions -- or better yet, craft a more formal internship program.
  • The internship specifically states whether a paid gig will be offered at the end of it. Be frank and honest.
  • The internship is bound by an unpaid internship agreement -- and make sure it complies with the Labor Department's internship guidelines.

The "Black Swan," Gawker, and NBC lawsuits should show you that there's a growing awareness that unpaid interns are allegedly being misused.

Ironically, Gawker published a snarky article about unpaid interns, showing they do know it's immoral, at least. And in a separate piece on the Fox Searchlight case titled "Ungrateful Interns Sue Over Privilege of Fetching Natalie Portman's Coffee," Gawker expounds on the illustrious history of the unpaid internship gambit:

This is America, where exploiting young people via unpaid internships, thus cutting out anyone who isn't rich or well-connected, is a time-honored tradition...

Alleged illegality aside, potentially sharing the values of what you satirize is mighty (G)awkward.

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