As summer approaches, many stations are preparing for the arrival of summer interns. While internship programs can earn stations EEO “credit” towards meeting the requirement that they conduct non-vacancy specific outreach efforts (the so-called “menu options” or “supplemental efforts” offered by the FCC to encourage stations to reach out to their communities to educate community residents as to what jobs are available at broadcast stations, and how people can train for and find out about such openings (see the article here for a link to a presentation that I did on all of the FCC’s EEO requirements), stations need to be cautious in setting up their internship programs for other reasons. In recent years, there have been a large number of lawsuits in over whether interns need to be paid for their work. While these lawsuits have spanned many industries, several involved broadcasters and other media companies. Thus, we felt the need for this cautionary note.
These disputes arise over wage and hour issues. In the most general terms, lawyers for former interns who were not paid have argued that the interns should have been paid as they functioned as employees of the station. In analyzing these issues, courts look at a number of issues, principally to determine if the internship was one that was meant more to benefit the intern and their education, or whether it was of a greater benefit it the station. Where the interns do the work that a paid employee would normally do, then there is an argument that the intern should themselves have been paid. What issues do the courts review?
Factual analysis in these cases, to determine if the intern substituted for a paid employee, include whether the training is similar to what an intern would receive in a school setting, whether the intern is usually supervised in their work by a paid employee, and whether the internship in some cases actually is a detriment (not a benefit) to the employer as the training offered to the intern takes paid employees from other duties. Looking at whether the intern received credit from an academic institution, the role of the institution in reviewing the structure of the internship, the fact that the intern is not automatically entitled to a job at the completion of the internship (it is not just a training program or trial period for future employees), and whether both the intern and the employer had a clear understanding upfront that the intern would not be paid, are additional considerations that are involved in this analysis.
I am not an employment lawyer, so talk to your employment lawyer for more detailed information about these issues. For more information, you may also want to review the US Department of Labor’s helpful guide on these issues: http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.pdf