How Unpaid Interns Are Exploited, Fighting Back and Winning

BY Paul Solman  September 27, 2013 at 11:19 AM EDT

By Eric Glatt

In Thursday’s Making Sen$e segment on unpaid internships, which you can watch below, Paul Solman spoke with Eric Glatt, who challenged Fox Searchlight Pictures about his unpaid position working on “Black Swan.” Here Paul talks with Glatt about how animals have a stronger lobby than interns do in the film industry. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Melissa Gira Grant.

Two years ago, Eric Glatt, a 41-year-old intern, emailed Ross Perlin, author of “Intern Nation.” We featured our conversation with Perlin and our Making Sen$e broadcast segment on internships on Thursday. (Watch the segment at the bottom of this post.)

Glatt had been working for no pay (not even minimum wage) as an accounting clerk for Fox Searchlight Pictures on “Black Swan” — the blockbuster that hauled in over $300 million. Glatt realized that what his “employer” was doing (not paying him) was illegal. He wasn’t receiving training and there was no guarantee of a full-time job down the line — nothing to qualify his experience as a legal internship program. Glatt contacted Perlin to ask for a recommendation for a lawyer. He wanted to sue. This summer, he and his team won, as Perlin detailed in Time Magazine. Here Eric recounts his story — from how he was duped into thinking working for free was okay to the discoveries that made him take action.

Eric Glatt: When I was 29, I started a dual business degree program. I have an MBA from Case Western Reserve and a Master’s of International Management from the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona. I came back to New York City working as a commercial property broker in the insurance industry, and it was when I got laid off from that job, when New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer investigated the insurance industry, that I first started working in documentary films. Some of my friends worked in the field. I worked on a few films, went back into financial services and was working at AIG, running a global training program, ironically, for recent hires right out of college — they were all paid.

Paul Solman: Well, look what happened to AIG.

Eric Glatt: Well yeah. I was there when that happened. It was an interesting ringside seat. And by that time I was almost 40.

Paul Solman: So you had an MBA; you had a master’s; you had experience on Wall Street; and you felt you had to take an unpaid internship?

Eric Glatt: I was transitioning into an industry for which that is your foot in the door. I had the opportunity to work on a big feature with Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman. I thought, well, this is one of those kinds of breaks that may lead to other big things.

Paul Solman: And this is “Black Swan.”

Eric Glatt: Turned out to be “Black Swan.” I wasn’t happy about the fact that I wasn’t getting paid, but it was simply what you did. It’s absolutely standard operating procedure. You can look on the United Talent Agency jobs list. It’s not public — it comes out every week or so and circulates underground with all the great opportunities on all the lots and all the studios — and I would say a third of the jobs on the UTA jobs list are internships.

Paul Solman: Unpaid.

Eric Glatt: Well, sometimes they don’t tell you. Sometimes it will say paid; sometimes it will say unpaid; and sometimes you have to ask.

Paul Solman: So what is the job you take?

Eric Glatt: The job was exactly what was described to me. It was that of an accounting clerk. The accounting office had four full-time employees and a clerk to help manage the work flow and the paperwork, personnel files, receipts and petty cash and purchase orders…

Paul Solman: But you’re not on the set, meeting Natalie Portman?

Eric Glatt: I actually went to the set almost every day. As the accounting clerk, I would be the person who would go to the set to take care of anything that needed doing — to drop off cash, to pick up receipts, to get checks signed.

Paul Solman: How many hours a day were you working?

Eric Glatt: Oh, normal full-time job — come in the morning, leave when you’re done in the evening: eight, 10 hours, depending on the day, maybe 12. A normal job.

Paul Solman: And when did you start to feel like you were being exploited?

Eric Glatt: Well, I knew that the situation itself was exploitative, but what I didn’t know was that there was anything I could do about it. When it’s standard practice and everybody seems to be green-lighting it, you don’t think, well, obviously this must be illegal. You assume somehow they’ve found a way to make this legitimate. Otherwise, how could it be so widespread?

But, by sheer coincidence, right around the time production was wrapping in early 2010, the Department of Labor issued factsheet 71. It’s a two-page document that summarizes, among other things, the findings from a 1947 Supreme Court case that looked at a one-week training program — not three-month, six-month or year-long internships. The Supreme Court said, you know, this new minimum wage law we’ve passed — the Fair Labor Standards Act — if you’ve got a trainee at your work site who is not helping your business run and may be even costing you time and resources, then you don’t have to pay minimum wage.

So the Department of Labor, in April of 2010, issued this factsheet, sort of reiterating that test and then using the specific term “internship”: all you employers out there hiring unpaid interns, the only way this could possibly be legitimate is if you’re adhering to this old Supreme Court case. And the labor reporter for the New York Times, Steve Greenhouse, wrote a piece: “The Unpaid Intern — Legal or Not?” I think I may actually have been sitting at my desk at work and I saw this and I was like, I knew it! I knew there was something illegitimate about this. And it’s not just an ethical question; it’s a legal question.

Paul Solman: Did you feel, once you read the Greenhouse article, that you’d been a sap?

Eric Glatt: No. It was more like I was empowered. I finally had a tool that I could use to start articulating what was wrong with this situation.
The first thing I did was try to get other people incensed about it: Why can’t we band together, in a union sense, and withhold our labor? But most people aren’t interested in fighting a social cause.

Paul Solman: Why not?

Eric Glatt: Well, they’re looking to further their careers. In the film industry, you bounce from freelancer job to freelancer job. Most people grudgingly do one or two internships because they think, when I’m done with that, I’ll put it behind me and I won’t have to think about it again. Most people are fine with that trade off and not too concerned about what happens in the wider sense.

So I wasn’t going to start a union of people banding together. I tried thinking of a non-profit watchdog group. I don’t know if you have ever seen at the end of a movie, “The American Humane Association certifies that no animals were harmed during the production of this film.” I thought, why don’t we do something like that and say we’re adhering to certain labor laws. And the reason that disclaimer appears at the end of movies is the Screen Actors’ Guild has it in their contract. If you have a SAG actor, and animals are brought onto the set, we’re going to call the AHA to monitor the handling of the animals. And if you adhere to our standards, you get the sign off at the bottom.

I thought, all you have to do is get one union to say this is an interest of theirs as well, and somehow, form this watchdog group to perform a similar role. And I found that was almost impossible.

Paul Solman: So you mean the animals have a stronger lobby than interns.

Eric Glatt: I actually made that case to someone in one of the unions, who explained that they have to represent their union members, not other people who happen to be working on the set. And I said, so you mean it would be easier for me to have my rights protected as an animal, rather than as an intern, and they were like, well, yeah.

Paul Solman: And you do have less influence than animals because there are so many people who want to do these jobs.

Eric Glatt: Oh yeah. There are plenty of people, including interns themselves, who are very quick to defend what they see as the value of the status quo.

Not long after having read the law, I went on a job interview that asked for experience, knowledge of certain software, the whole nine yards, but they weren’t going to pay. The woman who interviewed me said, “We didn’t know we were going to need another assistant editor so this wasn’t in our budget.” And when I said, “I think you’ve just offered me an illegal work arrangement,” she just waved her hands in the direction of the office building and said, “I can find 10 people walking these halls who would be happy to do it, to work with this director and this producer.”

That’s what people are up against: they’re competing with other people willing to do it, and I think one of the reasons the practice has become so formalized and institutionalized is that it relies on the fact that this is what you have to do to get ahead, to distinguish yourself from your colleagues, so you’ll do it because you’re competing for the paid jobs that are eventually, hopefully, down the road.

Paul Solman: But it’s because young people in this labor market are basically powerless, right?

Eric Glatt: Well, that’s it. But the fact is that this is an unregulated free-for-all that’s basically told employers that all they have to do is slap the term “intern” on an entry level job and it becomes one they don’t have to pay for. And it’s told young adults that, so long as they’re still young and still relatively inexperienced, their labor isn’t actually all that valuable.

Paul Solman: What finally pushed you to take legal action?

Eric Glatt: A year later, Ross Perlin came out with the book “Intern Nation,” which really laid out both the history of the rise of this practice — how prevalent it’s become — and also how harmful and toxic this is becoming to the economy. It was that book that really then got me thinking that this isn’t just something harming freelancers in this industry; this is indicative of a structural problem that goes much, much deeper. And that’s when it really started occurring to me that someone needed to do something that would have a much bigger impact that could possibly bring this practice to a grinding halt.

Then, when I started saying, “I’m thinking about filing a lawsuit,” everybody’s reaction was, “Don’t do that, that’s crazy. You’ll never work again. Why do you think you can change anything? That’s not a path towards success.”

And, you know, when I finally figured out what the legal argument was, and I tried finding someone to pick it up, I honestly thought it wasn’t going to happen. I found (employment law firm) Outten and Golden and met with one of the partners of the firm and I was kind of shocked that they seemed to think I had a good case.
And then when we won and the judge’s ruling was so clear and completely affirmed our legal argument without watering it down at all, I couldn’t have been happier. It’s really one of those few moments when you realize that having a society organized around the rule of law — eventually, there are ways for one person to push the scales a little bit and make a difference.

Paul Solman: Was it career suicide for you?

Eric Glatt: Well, I’m no longer working in the industry. I did recognize I may be burning a bridge, but my co-plaintiff, Alex Footman, he does still work in the industry. I can’t speak for Alex, but I have heard him say that he’s worked for people who, when they found out he was one of the co-plaintiffs in the “Black Swan” case, said, “Oh yeah, right on. Good for you.” And they would tell their colleagues, “Hey, this is that guy who stood up for himself and sued.” So there are people in the industry who get it.

Paul Solman spoke with Eric Glatt as part of Thursday’s Making Sen$e segment.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.