Interview with an employment lawyer

August 2, 2011

As evidence that law firms are starting to see the issue for what it is, Yasinski & Jones, LLP in Los Angeles, California, recently set up a website, InternshipLaw.com, to reach out to employers and interns. We hereby give the floor to John Carrigan, employment attorney with the firm, who answered our questions.

What gave you the idea to focus on this issue?
Having worked at several unpaid internships while I was in college, the issue has been in the back of my mind for years. Also, I practice in Los Angeles, which is home to a lot of unpaid internships in what you might call “glamour” industries like entertainment, public relations and fashion. A lot of these employers are very clear about expecting interns to perform real, substantive work for no pay, but no one seems to do much about it. I saw that as an interesting niche area for my practice.

What do you bring to it?
What I hope to bring to the issue is an ability to see the issue from both sides of the table, with a focus on the realities of the workplace. For instance, I try to look not at what “opportunities” an internship might present, but at what the interns are actually doing during their workday. Oftentimes, that may be something else altogether.

Do you think that employers are generally aware that unpaid internships are often illegal?
In my experience, most employers who improperly utilize unpaid interns don’t realize that they’re violating any laws in doing so. Many employers (and interns) believe, incorrectly under U.S. and California law, that there’s no obligation to pay an intern so long as he or she receives academic credit. Some other employers believe, also incorrectly under U.S. and California law, that they can get around an obligation to pay simply by getting a signed acknowledgement from the intern that the position will be unpaid.  

Why do you think that illegal internships are so common?
I think the biggest reason, at least in the U.S., would be that there’s been no real headline-grabbing case in which an employer was hit with substantial liability because they didn’t pay their interns. As a result, there’s a lack of familiarity with the law on both sides, and many interns have no idea they might even be entitled to pay, particularly where they’re receiving academic credit.

For those interns who do believe they’ve wrongly been denied pay, there is also the fear of retaliation. Interns tend to view their internships as a door into full-time employment in their chosen field, and a lot of them believe that filing any wage claim, or even simply asking to be paid, would mean they’d be somehow blackballed from an entire industry. Personally, I think that fear is vastly overstated. 

Is it difficult for you to convince employers that their internship program may be illegal?
Rather than describing a program as “illegal,” I’d be more likely just to explain that, based on the program as it is currently structured, there is a legal obligation to pay the interns. Under both U.S. and California law, in order for an internship for a for-profit employer to be unpaid, the employer has to satisfy six specific criteria, one of which is that the employer does not receive any “immediate advantage” from the interns’ work. Frankly, it is very rare that an intern’s work would not provide such an advantage to a for-profit employer, and most employers understand this once they take a look at the decisions interpreting the law.

Do you find that the courts understand the issue?
I think that they would, but very few of these cases go all the way to trial. Instead, the vast majority of wage claims are resolved out of court, generally for amounts that are kept confidential. 

Any interesting cases that you could share?
An opinion came out in California last year [NDLR: see LACBA, July-August 2011 (PDF)] regarding an internship program organized by a non-profit group called Year-Up, Inc.. Year-Up placed interns in short-term positions with for-profit employers as part of a curriculum meant to provide the interns with technical skills.  Although the interns were not paid a minimum wage, the employers actually paid more than $22,000 per intern to Year-Up to sponsor the program. The opinion concluded that interns involved in that program did not have to be paid because each of the six factors had been satisfied, but its discussion highlights just how many hoops a California employer must jump through in order to lawfully utilize unpaid interns.  As a result, from an employer’s perspective, it will often be more efficient just to pay interns the minimum wage rather than go through the hassle of establishing an unpaid internship program that complies with the law.

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