Clarence Fanto: Grads still facing tough job market


LENOX -- Graduates entering the job market this month continue to face long odds of landing a paid position, especially in their chosen field.

Even short-term summer jobs are hard to come by, so internships are the first, or last, resort for students who need to save money to help pay their college expenses and keep their loans at a manageable level.

Fortunately, our area's arts and entertainment venues and the hospitality industry, especially restaurants and inns, provide temporary employment for several thousand local residents, though many work for minimal wages and, at eateries, primarily for tips.

Increasingly, many who need work have to settle for unpaid internships, in some cases with college credit, in others simply as a potentially valuable entry for their still-slim resumes.

In a highly significant legal ruling this past week that received minimal attention amid the swirl of major news events, a Federal District Court in New York ruled that a film company, Fox Searchlight Pictures, violated U.S. and New York state minimum wage laws by failing to pay production interns. The use of free labor is a long-standing tradition in the movie business as well as elsewhere.

Employment research firms have estimated there are more than one million internships that employ college students each year, half of them unpaid, according to published reports.

In his ruling on Tuesday, Judge William H. Pauley III wrote that two undergraduate interns on the film "Black Swan" had done the same work as regular employees, without gaining any educational benefit that could be applied as college credit. The parent company, 20th Century Fox, intends to appeal the decision.

The successful lawsuit by the two interns -- one of them, Eric Glatt, an M.B.A. degree-holder from Case Western Reserve University -- stated that their duties included making travel plans for other workers, tracking purchase orders, assembling office furniture, taking out garbage, answering phones and collecting lunch orders.

Glatt compared his internship to an accounting clerk, filing paperwork and ferrying cash between the production office and the film set.

So much for the supposed glamour of show business. But this scut work is frequently performed by entry level employees who are glad to have their first paying position as a foothold in the industry.

It's easier to justify the use of free labor on a temporary basis at a struggling nonprofit. At a larger operation, and certainly at a for-profit business, the practice becomes questionable.

The judge advocated using U.S. Labor Department guidelines for unpaid internships -- they should not be to the immediate advantage of the employer, the work must parallel the vocational training given in an educational environment, the intern must benefit from the experience and the duties cannot supplant those of a regular paid employee.

Judge Pauley dismissed as mostly irrelevant the justification that unpaid interns may receive academic credit.

Glatt, now a first-year student at Georgetown University Law School in Washington, D.C., told the student newspaper The Hoya that he hopes Georgetown, with its Jesuit tradition of social justice, will take a stand to help eliminate unpaid internships by neither encouraging students to pursue them nor awarding academic credits.

Now switching career paths away from the movie industry, Glatt told the newspaper: "I decided I was tired of pretending things were fine when they really weren't fine. I also recognized that suing one's employer is not a good way to get hired again in that industry and public interest law sounded like a great way to be of better service."

It's a tough world out there for young people seeking paid work, whether for the summer or longer- term. It would behoove employers to weigh carefully the standards outlined by Judge Pauley to determine whether the internships they offer meet the test.

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