Kyle Grant was still living in a Bronx homeless shelter when he started interning at Warner Music Group (WMG) in August 2012. The gig was unpaid, and he couldn’t afford an apartment of his own after moving out of his girlfriend’s mother’s house, but he took it anyway. He’d already worked at JAMBOX Entertainment, a much smaller music production company. He was planning to launch his own record label one day. A stint in Warner’s Music Promotions Department seemed a pretty great way to learn the basics.
But like so many facets of the unpaid intern industrial complex, it wasn’t quite what it appeared.
“As an intern I wanted to do whatever I could to make a name, to at least stand out to somebody,” Grant, now 23, told Newsweek in a recent conversation in a Manhattan law office. “That’s not what happened. It was just a routine of getting things.”
Most days, Grant was expected to fetch drinks for two different vice presidents. He also took lunch orders and took clothing to be dry-cleaned. “Things that have nothing to do with working in radio promotions,” he said. “Oh, man, I even took people’s luggage. When you need to repair luggage and you take it to Louis Vuitton? I was picking out jewelry and things like that.”
Unbeknownst to Grant, a set of federal Department of Labor guidelines—known as “Fact Sheet #71”—stipulates that an unpaid internship must be “for the benefit of the intern” rather than the employer. “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern,” the document states, “and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.” At a for-profit music conglomerate like WMG, operations probably weren’t impeded by an unpaid worker fetching lunch orders.
But Grant’s hours left little time for studying labor policy. He was taking classes at the time, but the internship required well over 40 hours a week, and his GPA soon plummeted.
“I was told if you want to be an intern here, there are small things you’ve got to do,” he said, “like coming in earlier, leaving later, be the first one here, be the last one out, that type of thing.” So he’d arrive by 9 a.m.—he had to make sure coffee was ready for his bosses—and would frequently stay in the office until 8 or 9 p.m. Then he’d return home to the shelter, which he describes as “like a large dorm room of adult homeless people,” including drug addicts and prostitutes.
That schedule posed another problem: The shelter had an 8 o’clock curfew. Often he would arrive home to find a note from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) threatening to kick him out onto the streets.
“I had a lot of different obligations to deal with, and it kind of felt like they were insensitive to that,” Grant said. “It was like, OK, I’m not getting paid here, I’m here more than freaking paid employees. When I say I have to be somewhere Monday because they’re going to cut off the food stamps benefits I get, you can’t tell me my job is in jeopardy. Which kind of made me fear my job security even more. Which kind of made me want to be there even more hours, because it was like, OK, I called out last week, let me do that much more.”
Those fears turned out to be warranted. Grant worked for about eight months without compensation—an exceptionally long time by internship standards, though he said some interns had been there for three or four years. (“The joke around the label was, ‘Oh, that’s a super-intern.’”)
Then he was fired.
Grant says he was let go for taking too much time for his lunch break. He’d been spending his downtime trying to get the A&R department excited about a band that was doing well in Thailand. He set up a meeting over lunchtime, though he had no regularly scheduled time to eat, and when he got back to his desk, he was told to leave.
So he did what an increasingly sizable number of disgruntled ex-interns have been doing over the past two or three years. He sued.
Grant isn’t the first to cap off an unpaid internship with a class-action lawsuit alleging wage violations instead of the routine employer references. Nor was he the first to take legal action against WMG. A former Atlantic Records intern named Justin Henry targeted WMG, which owns Atlantic, with a proposed class-action lawsuit seeking unpaid wages in June 2013—just two months after Grant’s internship came to an abrupt end.
Henry declined to comment for this article, but court documents obtained by Newsweek suggest his experience wasn’t dissimilar from Grant’s. While interning in the A&R department in late 2007 and early 2008, Henry “was responsible for completing various office tasks such as answering telephones, making photocopies, deliveries, creating lists, preparing coffee, and running personal errands for paid employees,” a statement says.
Grant’s mother learned about the lawsuit on the news and told her son. “I saw who was representing him, and I reached out,” Grant said. Virginia & Ambinder, a lower Manhattan law firm that specializes in labor law, has brought similar cases from former interns against Madison Square Garden, Viacom, Sony, Universal Music and other companies. The firm is spearheading this suit in collaboration with attorneys at Leeds Brown LLP. Soon Grant became the lead plaintiff. “I just knew that I busted my ass for Warner Music Group, and I got fired. I’m entitled to some compensation.”
In May, the suit was granted collective action status. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, that means the firm now has permission to alert anyone who has interned for WMG in the past three years and invite the person to join the lawsuit. Those interns number around 3,000, the firm says.
WMG has mostly kept quiet. “Given that this is a pending matter, we will let our legal filings speak for themselves,” a representative told Newsweek in a one-line statement. The company’s defense seems to hinge on questioning the commonality of the plaintiffs and arguing that its interns should be classified as “trainees” rather than employees, an exception detailed in the 1947 Supreme Court decision Walling v. Portland Terminal Co. That argument served Hearst well when former Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan interns were denied class-action status in 2013.
But will Warner have the same luck? The company is so large that past interns described drastically different experiences from department to department. The one consistency: All who interned in the past decade confirmed that their work went uncompensated, save for the occasional subway fare stipend (about $5, or two subway rides, a day).
For some, the unpaid hours paid dividends.
“Warner definitely opened up so much opportunity for me,” said Dylan Steinberg, a 2007 intern who went on to launch a small video production company. “They had me produce and write a treatment on a band called Shadows Fall. They loved the treatment, and they hired me and my college roommate, and we put together a show package. They somehow trusted me, a college sophomore, with a $7,000 budget.”
Other stories related to Newsweek were less inspiring. One former intern, who worked in WMG’s London office and spoke on condition of anonymity, said she spent every day digitizing hundreds of CDs into a computer database until her eyes hurt from updating the metadata.
“Sometimes for eight hours I was hardly spoken to, as my supervisor was in another room and the employees in the same room were not very willing to talk to me,” the ex-intern wrote in an email. She’d been told there might be a paid gig waiting on the other side, but after two months her boss said that wouldn’t be possible “because a lot of people wished to work for Warner for free.”
The popular wisdom is that those lining up to work for free are children of the wealthy, people who can afford to clock hours without pay. But data compiled by the consulting firm Intern Bridge show that poor and middle-class students are just as likely to land in unpaid internships.
Interns like Grant, in other words. They can’t “afford” to work for free, by any metric. But they’ll do it anyway.
Three years ago, a lawsuit like Grant’s might have been tossed out of court and mocked by the media. So what’s changed?
When the activist group Intern Labor Rights formed in early 2012—put together from the listserv of an Occupy Wall Street working group called Arts & Labor—the proliferation of unpaid internships was widely accepted and scarcely discussed, a relatively obscure concern at the fringes of labor law. As Ross Perlin documents in his 2011 book, Intern Nation, unpaid opportunities have skyrocketed over the past few decades. For companies, that’s particularly tempting during a recession.
But for uncompensated 20-somethings, it means one unpaid gig leading to another leading to another. In the arts and media world, the promise is always the same: exposure, experience and the faint glimmer of a paid gig at the end of the tunnel.
The Baffler magazine called out the increasingly exploitative practice as early as 1997, in “Internment Camp.” But courts and labor policy have only just begun to play catch-up.
The tipping point, experts say, was a high-profile 2011 suit against Fox Searchlight Pictures. Eric Glatt and Alex Footman, the plaintiffs, served as unpaid interns on the set of Black Swan in 2009. The two demanded back wages, arguing that their menial tasks—which mostly entailed fetching coffee and lunch orders—legally classified them as paid employees. They faced ridicule and threats that they’d never work in film again
Then, in 2013 a judge ruled that they should have been compensated as employees, and the floodgates opened. A new flurry of lawsuits arrived: against Condé Nast, against Gawker, against MSNBC and Saturday Night Live. When interns at The Nation decided to write a letter to the editor instead of suing, the magazine owned up and agreed to dole out minimum wage.
“When we filed the lawsuit, the media coverage favored ridicule more than respect,” Glatt said. “[Now] the sentiment has completely changed. The attitude about this has completely shifted. People recognize this is a practice that needs to end. Its time has come. More and more people are experiencing firsthand how dysfunctional this system is.”
Lucy Bickerton, a friend of Glatt’s who filed a similar lawsuit against the Charlie Rose show on PBS, where she interned in 2007, shares the sentiment. That case culminated with a classwide settlement amounting to $250,000, which the plaintiff called “a huge victory.”
“I never really thought it would go anywhere, honestly,” Bickerton told Newsweek. “The fact that it has really managed to do a lot and produce positive results is so heartening and really incredible.”
Doesn’t she worry the lawsuit will brand her as unemployable? She doesn’t: “If anyone has a problem with that as a potential employer, then they’re probably breaking some laws themselves.”
For arts and media organizations, the effects of the great intern revolt, as it’s been dubbed, have been mixed. Companies as high-profile as the New York Times Co. have been successfully pressured into paying all interns minimum wages. Others, like Condé Nast, have responded to lawsuits by doing away with the programs altogether.
But for labor-minded law firms, the results are less ambiguous. This is a burgeoning realm of employment law, and Virginia & Ambinder seems well positioned to take the lead. The WMG suit isn’t even the latest. Since then, the law firm has targeted Clear Channel, Atlas Media and others. Another leading firm, Outten & Golden, has represented suits against Charlie Rose, Condé Nast and Hearst and is reported to have set its sights on Vice Media.
“Our hope with these cases is that companies wake up and start paying their interns and realize the value of interns,” Suzanne Leeds, an associate at Virginia & Ambinder, told Newsweek. “You’re getting people like Kyle [Grant] who are really passionate about the industry, desperate to get their foot in the door. You’re getting really good workers, and they deserve to be paid.”
Meanwhile, the ex-interns themselves have moved on. Bickerton entered a post-bac pre-med program. Glatt just finished up his second year of law school.
More than a year removed from his internship, Kyle Grant has started taking classes again. He has an apartment. He’s building up his homespun label, Live.Out.Ur.Dreams Entertainment Worldwide (L*O*U*D).
He still has his Warner Music badge—a prized possession—but he’s learned not to place too much trust in the unpaid labor economy.
“There’s a lot of people that want to be in the music industry,” Grant said. “And the doors, they don’t really open. When they do, when [they] did for me, it was the biggest opportunity of my life. And it was taken away because I didn’t get people’s lunches promptly or whatever it was.
“That should be fixed,” he said.
Correction: Ross Perlin's Intern Nation was first published in 2011, not in 2012.