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'Black Swan' interns press on with class action wage lawsuit

In some industries, paying dues is the only way to really break into the business. In TV news, young reporters are often sent out to stand in the snow and talk about harsh weather so veteran journalists don't have to brave the cold. Some great writers have started their careers penning obituaries and in finance, junior consultants often take care of the more menial number-crunching tasks.

While starting at the bottom has its merits, these early job roles are sometimes called internships, this can bring legal trouble in Maryland and elsewhere. Unpaid internship programs sometimes dance on a fine line between a stepping stone and a violation of federal employment law. Last fall, a class action lawsuit was filed by interns who worked on the set of Fox Searchlight's "Black Swan," and that suit might get much bigger.

Two interns filed the lawsuit earlier this year, and they recently filed a court request to expand the suit to cover all of the interns who participated in Fox Entertainment Group's programs, rather than only those who worked on "Black Swan."

The lawsuit alleges the internship programs violate federal minimum wage and overtime laws.

In general, the Fair Labor Standards Act does allow unpaid internship programs, but only if they meet certain criteria. For example, there must be an educational benefit for the interns, and interns must not replace regular employees.

Interestingly, in July 2010 Fox Entertainment Group changed its policy and began paying all of its interns $8 an hour.

A judge has ordered a hearing later this month to determine whether the class action suit may be expanded to include FEG's other intern groups.

Over the past year, several unpaid internships have been challenged in employment lawsuits. For example, former interns have filed lawsuits against Hearst Corp and the "Charlie Rose" show. As the number of unpaid internships continues to increase in a variety of industries, disputes will likely rise as well.

Source: The Hollywood Reporter, "Fox's Entire Internship Program Now Under Legal Attack," Eriq Gardner, Aug. 13, 2012

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