Anyone who follows the employment litigation docket knows that lawsuits by unpaid (and often, subsequently unemployed) interns have turned into the claim-du-jour in many parts of the country. Following the recent onset of wage class actions brought by former interns against fashion and media industry powerhouses, last week Burberry became the latest luxury retailer victim. Former intern Lysandra Whitlow filed suit in New York, accusing the company of not paying its interns for work that failed to provide any academic benefit.
Whitlow, who interned at Burberry in the summer of 2012, claims she worked 32 hour weeks doing administrative tasks like washing dishes and serving pastries at meetings, which she claims amounted to free labor. Her complaint alleges that the work she did benefitted Burberry and were it not for her and other interns, the company would have had to hire and pay another employee to perform her tasks.
Like Burberry, this past month alone sports marketing giant IMG Worldwide LLC and Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. were both hit with unpaid intern class actions. And these claims can surely get expensive. Just ask Madison Square Garden, which settled an unpaid intern class action for $795,000 back in November.
While washing dishes and serving pastries may at one time have been considered to be the price of admission to certain industries, the slew of internship lawsuits we have seen indicates that is no longer the case. Any employer contemplating an internship program (and it should be a formal program) must ensure, among other things, that the internship offers education value and training, that the internship experience is for the benefit of the intern and that the intern does not displace regular employees.
The Second Circuit is hearing arguments today in cases brought by former interns at Fox Searchlight Pictures and Hearst Corporation. The ruling in that case should provide greater certainty for employers in this area.