Two unpaid interns at Comcast Corp.-owned NBCUniversal, one with Saturday Night Live and the other at the MSNBC cable-news channel, have filed a federal class-action lawsuit seeking at least $5 million.
The case is the latest unpaid-intern suit in the U.S. entertainment industry, in which top executives earn tens of millions of dollars a year, and follows a recent court decision favorable to unpaid or underpaid interns.
U.S. Judge William H. Pauley 3d in New York said on June 11 that two unpaid interns at Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc. were employees and covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, while also granting class-action status to unpaid interns at Fox.
Pauley said that the two Fox Searchlight interns displaced paid employees and "received nothing approximating the education they would receive in an academic setting or vocational school" - the requirement to being classified as interns at a for-profit company. If such individuals cannot be classified as unpaid interns, then any duties they perform during their time at a company constitutes work and makes them employees.
The two NBCUniversal interns, Jesse Moore and Monet Eliastam, claimed in their suit filed on July 3 that they booked travel arrangements, processed petty cash, greeted guests, answered phones, got coffee, and hushed people when they walked into the studio, in their unpaid internships. Moore and Eliastam said they worked unpaid at least 24 hours a week.
Because it classified workers as unpaid or underpaid interns, NBCUniversal did not have to provide unemployment benefits, workers' compensation insurance, or Social Security contributions, according to the suit.
NBCUniversal spokeswoman Cameron Blanchard said the company would not comment on litigation.
NBCUniversal began paying interns earlier this year.
The suit claims there could be more than 100 unpaid interns dating to July 2007.
Juno Turner, the New York lawyer representing the NBCUniversal and Fox Searchlight interns, said that it appeared that unpaid internships were proliferating and that her firm, employment law specialist Outten & Golden L.L.P., had been hearing complaints from individuals.
"Folks must have reached a tipping point because they started contacting us," Turner said. "It is certainly an issue we have been interested in and perplexed by, people who are working and not getting paid."
Two factors behind the proliferation of unpaid interns in entertainment and media are the jobs' perceived glamour and belief that an unpaid job could lead to a paid job.
Unpaid or underpaid interns also have sued Gawker, Hearst Corp., W Magazine, Fox Soccer Channel, Atlantic Records, Conde Nast and talk-show host Charlie Rose and his production company, according to published reports. Rose settled with his interns.