Unpaid Interns Gain Support From Labor Department

Sarah Berlin

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Last week, the Department of Labor filed a brief with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of former Hearst Corporation interns who are seeking back wages in a lawsuit. The eight former interns claim that they worked long hours for Hearst, on tasks such as coordinating deliveries and completing expense reports, without compensation or adequate supervision.  The Department of Labor uses a six-part test to determine whether a for-profit company needs to pay its interns. The criteria include not displacing regular employees and providing benefit to the intern, rather than an advantage to the company. According the Department of Labor, if a company violates any of these criteria, it must pay interns minimum wage. However, courts often employ a broader asessment.  As Pro Publica explains, the Department of Labor's brief focuses on these conflicting standards: [M]any courts have adopted a "primary beneficiary" or "totality of circumstances" test, which says that if the unpaid intern benefits from the internship more than the employer, the employer doesn't need to pay, whether or not the internship fulfills the government's six-part test.   In its amicus brief, the Labor Department asks the Second Circuit to reject the broader interpretation and adopt the agency's all-or-nothing standard, arguing that it is more objective and better protects interns from exploitation.   "Given the rapid expansion of unpaid internships across various sectors of the economy and the varied nature of those internships, it is important for the uniform enforcement of the [Fair Labor Standards Act] to have an objective test to measure interns' employment status," the brief says.Former unpaid interns have filed more than 20 lawsuits in the past few years, but this is the first time the Department of Labor has intervened in a high-profile case. 

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Sarah Berlin is an intern at In These Times.
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