Employment experts predict wave of lawsuits from unpaid interns

Fri Jun 14, 2013 3:26pm EDT
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By Amanda Becker

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When two former interns at the New Yorker and W Magazine sued parent company Conde Nast Publications on Thursday, legal experts said it could be the first in a wave of lawsuits challenging companies who pay little or nothing for student labor.

The lawsuit comes just two days after a judge found that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated labor laws when it used unpaid interns for production tasks on "Black Swan," the 2010 film starring Natalie Portman.

Employment lawyers said that decision and similar lawsuits that are likely to follow would force employers to reconsider using unpaid or underpaid interns, first in "glamour" industries such as movies and publishing, where the practice has become standard, and then in industries that have implemented similar policies to reduce labor costs in a flagging economy.

"This trend is probably going to expand beyond media companies and beyond New York," said Laura O'Donnell, a lawyer at Haynes & Boone in San Antonio who represents management in labor disputes. "I think employers in all industries across the country need to take note."

Thursday's lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, which also had issued the decision on Tuesday against News Corp's (NWSA.O: Quote) Fox Searchlight.

Lauren Ballinger, an intern at W Magazine for several months in 2009, and Matthew Leib, who had internships at the New Yorker in 2009 and 2010, said Conde Nast violated federal labor laws.

Ballinger received $12 a day to organize accessories, run personal errands for editors and make deliveries to vendors. Leib got a flat rate of $300 to $500 for each three- to four-month internship, which included reviewing submissions to the New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" section, responding to emails sent to the magazine, proofreading and opening mail.

The lawsuit, which seeks a class action on behalf of all affected Conde Nast workers, said the Fair Labor Standards Act required the company to pay an hourly minimum wage.   Continued...