Summer is in full-swing, but eager college students are already planning and applying for fall internships in Washington, D.C. These political and governmental hopefuls want to get hands-on experience in the nation’s capital to help launch their post-graduation careers.

Many of these potential interns are willing to do almost anything to pad their resumes and gain competitive skill sets, including working long hours for free. It sounds like a great deal for the government officials and federal offices that employ them, but a recent uptick in lawsuits by unpaid interns has clouded the issue. Perhaps this free, educated labor isn’t such a good deal after all.

In brief, the recent lawsuits are causing employers to re-evaluate whether to hire interns at all, and if so, whether those interns should be classified as employees.

Recent History of Wage Claims Cases

Several cases located in New York have ushered this issue to the forefront of HR departments’ minds. While these cases occurred in the business sector, the lessons learned can be applied in both the government and nonprofit sectors as well.

In one case, unpaid interns filed separate class action lawsuits against Fox Pictures and Hearst Corporation. They alleged misclassification under the wage and hour laws and claimed back pay. In Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc., the court ruled on a summary judgment that the interns were, in fact, “employees” and were covered by federal and state wage and hour laws.

However, in Wang v. Hearst Corporation, the court had a very different ruling. In that case, the court denied the interns class certification and refused to hold on summary judgment that they were “employees” under the federal and state wage laws.

These two court cases represent two very different outcomes on the same issue. Both are currently on appeal in tandem, as they are awaiting a decision from the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. In the past couple of years, other unpaid intern cases that alleged similar misclassification include lawsuits against PBS’s Charlie Rose, Conde Nast Publications, NBC Universal, MTV Networks/Viacom, and Howard Stern of Sirius XM Radio.

Recent History of EEO Coverage Cases

Classification issues aren’t the only ones that have made headlines recently. In New York, another case introduced the issue of whether interns’ rights should be protected against civil rights violations, even though they (interns) are considered to be “non-employees.”
In Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television, a former intern’s harassment claims were dismissed due to the fact that she was not technically an “employee” under New York law. Following this case, the New York City Council voted 50-0, and the mayor signed into law, a new bill prohibiting employers from discriminating against unpaid interns – regardless of their “non-employee” status.

In Oregon, a similar law was passed in June 2013 that protects both paid and unpaid interns against discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation. Most recently, Washington, D.C. granted similar protections to interns, and New Jersey and California are in the process of created their own legislation on these issues as well.

As you can see, recent years have brought interns into the spotlight – as well as the companies that employee them. As more states follow suit, we will likely see an even greater number of these types of cases in courtrooms across America. If you have any questions about the issues discussed in this blog post, please reach out to a knowledgeable federal employee attorney.