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Unpaid interns file lawsuits

A look at Marketplace's internship area. Marketplace interns are paid, but the unpaid internship is a common work experience for many college and graduate students. Now some are saying that businesses need to pay up.

Kai Ryssdal: Back in the day, back in the old economy, you did one, maybe two unpaid internships during or right after college. Then you went out and got yourself a full-time job.

That's just not the way it is anymore. Now it's multiple internships -- most of them unpaid. And the interns in question -- not all of them young and fresh-faced, by the way -- have had enough. Marketplace's Nancy Marshall Genzer reports.


Nancy Marshall-Genzer: Eric Glatt always wanted to work in movies. At age 40, he decided to start a second career in film. He was elated when he got an unpaid internship with Fox Searchlight in 2009 working on the set of the movie, "Black Swan." His background was in finance. So, he went to work in the accounting department. His job included...

Eric Glatt: Taking petty cash to set, collecting receipts.

Glatt says that's what a studio accounting clerk does. And that was his job title. He wasn't in college anymore. So he didn't get any college credit. Glatt says most of the other unpaid interns on the set were also doing entry-level jobs. Glatt got to thinking...

Glatt: You know, we were in the middle of a jobs crisis and here was a big corporation basically getting away with soliciting free labor.

Glatt decided to sue Fox Searchlight. Last September his attorney, Elizabeth Wagoner, filed a class-action lawsuit charging that Fox violated federal and state labor laws. Wagoner has filed two other suits against other companies.

Elizabeth Wagoner: We have entry-level jobs that are being called internships so that employers have an excuse to pay no wages. We're just saying that an entry-level job deserves to be paid at least the minimum wage.

Harry Katz is a labor economist at Cornell. He says this is happening because employers have a lot of power in this tight job market.

Harry Katz: And so they have the leverage to offer these terms and have lots of people lined up to take them. That only happens in a context of high unemployment and excess supply of labor.

But Eric Glatt, doesn't think workers will put up with unpaid internships much longer.

Glatt: The tipping point has arrived. And I think this practice is coming to a swift end.

Fox Searchlight has issued a statement in response to the lawsuit. It says Fox internships comply "with all federal and state laws and regulations... while also providing... valuable 'real world' business experience."

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall-Genzer for Marketplace.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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