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Trial court ruling over intern wage dispute garners recognition

Earlier this year we discussed the issue of wage-and-hour disputes between workers and their employers. Unfair pay issues have been making news recently, as workers seek to enforce rights under laws aimed at protecting workers from abuses in pay. In June, a federal judge chambered in New York found that two unpaid interns who worked on the set of the film “Black Swan” had actually performed duties that fell within the scope of a regular employee.

The court said that the duties of the unpaid interns did not comply with the rules governing internships outlined by the Department of Labor. The district court ruling found that the “interns” were entitled to the same wage protections that are afforded to employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Commentators say that the district court’s analysis has been noted in courts beyond New York.

A college student from the Midwest who had interned for a local media outlet there essentially felt that his unpaid internship was merely a set up for the company to receive free work from him. He says that he did not even receive college credit for his internship, although the company disputes that claim. But the former intern is seeking relief under his state law over the wage and hour dispute, and he says that the New York case alerted him to raising the issue.

It is important to note that the New York trial court ruling is not necessarily binding precedent anywhere in the country, and generally is specific to the facts of the single case. But, in a struggling economy, many workers may feel the brunt of an employer’s hopes to keep costs down.

Equal pay issues, wage and hour disputes, misclassifications of employees and other forms of unfair pay practices may exist where an employer seeks to take advantage of a worker. One important lesson that may be involved in the recent intern cases is that they start with a person who feels that something is not right in the in the structure of the position, especially in relation to wage and hour protections. Employment law issues may involve complex legal analysis, and a worker who feels short-changed may wish to consult with legal counsel in a specific situation.

Source: The Star, “Unpaid internships under fire in Wisconsin, nationwide,” Matt Barnidge, Sept. 24, 2013

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