Unpaid intern cases to be heard by federal appeals court

Cover of amicus brief filed by National Employment Law Project

Cover of amicus brief filed by the National Employment Law Project

On Friday morning, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will hear oral arguments in two cases involving the legality of unpaid internships, Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures and Wang v. Hearst Corporation. Both cases are on appeal from lower court rulings. The Second Circuit, which sits in New York City, is one of the nation’s most prominent federal appellate courts. Its decision will apply to the many New York employers that hire interns and will influence courts in other parts of the country that are deciding wage claims brought by unpaid interns.

The key issues before the court today are:

1. What legal standard will be applied to employers who seek exemptions from minimum wage laws for interns?

2. What legal standard will be used to certify class action lawsuits on behalf of unpaid interns?

We can expect a decision on these cases sometime this spring.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I’ve been writing about the intern economy and legal issues concerning the widespread practice of unpaid internships for many years. In addition, for the Glatt and Wang cases, I signed onto “Friend of the Court” (a/k/a “amicus”) briefs submitted by the National Employment Law Project in support of the interns pursuing these claims.

During the past couple of days, I’ve been interviewed by print media on the pending cases. Here are two articles that summarize the significant legal issues:

Fortune: Claire Zillman, “Unpaid interns have their day in court — again”

Wall Street Journal: Rachel Feintzeig, “A Question for the Court: What’s an Intern Worth?”

 

 

Recycling: Five years of January

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

January 2014: Mental health in the academic workplace — Because mental health issues remain a neglected aspect of the academic workplace, I thought I’d do a quick roundup of websites and blog posts that may be helpful resources for those interested in learning more.

January 2013: A mediator writes about workplace bullying and mediation — Currently in the U.S., applying any [alternative dispute resolution] mechanism to a workplace bullying scenario often would occur under the assumption that the abusive behavior is legal. This automatically tags the situation as one of conflict rather than one of abuse. . . .By comparison, crime victims agreeing to participate in restorative justice practices typically have the power of the criminal codes and the criminal justice system behind them, thus significantly changing the presumptions and power dynamics between them and the offenders.

January 2012: Rats as role models? — The next time you deal with a less-than-wonderful co-worker, think twice before you call him a “dirty rat.” You see, it turns out that rats can be pretty decent creatures. . . . Not that I’m eager to have them over to my place, but I guess this shows that rats can be, umm, stand-up animals. After all, empathy and resilience make for a good combo, at work or anywhere else.

January 2011: The costs of suffering in silence about bad work situations — Let’s say you’re being bullied or harassed or otherwise mistreated at work. . . . Anger and resentment are natural responses to these situations, but is there any outlet to express your emotions at work? Many people — dare I say most people — will keep it bottled up inside them. After all, self-censorship has long been a staple of behavior for the rank-and-file worker. . . . Repressing these emotions can have grave health consequences, however.

January 2010: A brief history of the emergence of the U.S. workplace bullying movement — As more people become aware of workplace bullying and efforts to respond to it, I thought it might be useful to offer a brief summary of how the American movement got started a decade ago . . . .

 

Not-so-random acts of kindness for the non-saintly among us

Maybe some of the course rubbed off on me.

Maybe some of the course rubbed off on me.

Last November, I was crossing the street near Boston’s Faneuil Hall when I saw a man huddled in a blanket, shuffling past me in the opposite direction. I caught a glimpse of his eyes for only a second, but I could see a lot of sadness in them. When I got to the other side, I turned around and watched him make his way to a public bench, where he sat and seemed to just stare down.

I decided to go back across the street, and then I walked over to the man. I pulled some money from my wallet and offered it to him, saying that it looked like he could use something to eat. He appeared to be in very bad health, but when he saw that I was giving him twenty dollars and we began talking, his face lit up. He was very grateful for the money, and I believe he was appreciative that someone took a few minutes to converse with him.

What some might call a random act of kindness actually wasn’t all that random. Last fall I completed a non-credit, online adult education course, “The Science of Happiness,” led by psychology professors associated with UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. It was a substantial course on emerging scientific discoveries about what makes people happy, with weekly readings, video lectures, and quizzes, as well as mid-term and final exams. Among our optional assignments was to engage in random acts of kindness, drawing on psychological literature indicating that giving promotes happiness in both the giver and the receiver.

Indeed, a little voice from that course was speaking to me when I walked up to that man and gave him money, and I found myself feeling very emotional afterward. Since then, I’ve repeated this act maybe a half dozen times, approaching people who appear to be very down on their luck, saying hello and giving them a twenty dollar bill. Over the weekend it was a man sitting on a subway bench with all of his worldly belongings stuffed into a grocery cart. Earlier this month it was a woman digging through a trash receptacle in search of food, a few feet away from where I was enjoying my lunch.

A couple of times the recipients didn’t say much to me, but on other occasions they expressed surprise and deep gratitude. One man even hugged me. When you see someone’s facial expression go from weariness and despair to a big smile in a matter of seconds, then you know you’ve made someone’s day a little better.

I have hesitated to put this in a blog post because I don’t wish to portray myself as being someone I’m not. I walk by most people I see panhandling on the street, and I’ve never volunteered at a homeless shelter. And let’s be honest: Twenty bucks isn’t exactly a huge sacrifice for a single guy earning a professional salary. But I thought I’d offer this story as just one example of how the non-saintly among us can make a modest difference in the world. No, it’s not “social change” in the grander way that I’d like to see, but if enough of us engage in these acts, then maybe the good stuff starts to add up to something substantial.

Your not-so-random acts of kindness need not be the same as mine. But I can pretty much guarantee that whatever you decide to do, both you and the recipient(s) will feel better because of it.

***

Happiness course

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This piece has been cross-posted on my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser.

“When did people become disposable?”

A couple of weeks ago I enjoyed a long conversation over lunch with John-Robert Curtin, an educator, conflict resolution specialist, and media executive who is dedicated to fostering better workplaces. During the course of our conversation, J-R (as he likes to be called) repeated a question that has stuck with me, because it transcends so many societal settings, ranging from the workplace to international relations: When did people become disposable?

In the employment realm, disposability continues to manifest itself in so many ways, especially during this era of the economic meltdown, the effects of which continue to haunt average folks despite the performance of the stock market. Whether we’re talking large-scale layoffs while CEOs collect year-end bonuses, workers bullied or mobbed out of their jobs by co-workers, or horrific working conditions for those toiling in developing countries, this dynamic is very much a part of our modern systems of employment relations.

How can we reverse the moral, ethical, and psychological forces that allow us to treat people like this, denying their dignity and depriving them of good, safe jobs? Among many other things, we need to expand this conversation and our realm of influence to help make it so. This is why I am pleased to be a Fellow with the International Center for Compassionate Organizations, having accepted an invitation from Center co-founders Ari Cowan (Executive Director), Tony Belak (Associate Director), and J-R (Governing Committee member) to serve in this advisory capacity. The Center describes its mission this way:

The International Center for Compassionate Organizations is a nonprofit organization registered in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, USA. The International Center focusses on fostering cultures of compassion in government, business, healthcare systems, service agencies, colleges and universities, schools, faith groups, and other organizations worldwide. The Center responds to the emerging trend among a broad range of organizations seeking to incorporate compassion as a value and practice in their relationships with their staff, colleagues, board members, customers, and communities. The Center develops practical research, resources, education, consulting, coaching, and conferences. It takes a nonpolitical, evidence-based, and public health approach, and assists organizations to effectively improve employee engagement, productivity, staff retention, profitability, and customer satisfaction.

Later this year, J-R and I will be presenting on a panel on coaching as an intervention strategy for workplace bullying (with Ivonne Moreno-Velazquez and Jessi Eden Brown) at the biennial “Work, Stress and Health” conference, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. This year’s conference will be held on May 6-9 in Atlanta.

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job

 

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When Dr. Shelley Lane was experiencing severe bullying at the community college where she worked and recovering from foot surgery that limited her mobility, she retrieved the personal journals she wrote during a formative year spent studying abroad as a young undergraduate and turned them into a book project. In the Preface to her eventually published A Stirling Diary: An Intercultural Story of Communication, Connection, and Coming-Of-Age (2010), she writes:

Soon thereafter fate provided me with two reasons why I should read them again: a new president at the community college where I worked who made Attila the Hun appear weak and timid, and foot surgery that had me in crutches for four months. I finally returned to the journals to keep my mind away from the workplace bully and to forget that I wasn’t easily mobile.

Some 20 years after her sojourn abroad, she found in those journals “entries written by a young woman who was in the midst of a personal transformation.” Thus would emerge A Stirling Diary, a reflective travelogue that concludes with her return to the U.S. and her departure for graduate school.

Immersive alternatives

For some, delving into a positive, engaging, and immersive activity may serve as a healthy alternative to ruminating over a terrible work situation. This may be in the form of a hobby, a personal project, an avocation, volunteer work, or creating a side business. Shelley Lane did just that as she stepped back in time with her study abroad journals in the midst of her experience with workplace bullying.

Therapy or counseling, and mindfulness activities such as yoga or meditation, may be helpful for coping with bullying at work. In addition, consider the possibility of a meaningful, life-affirming endeavor in which you can lose yourself in a good way.

I emphasize words such as meaningful and immersive. I am well aware that this is not as simple as picking out a hobby or pastime from some random list. (In this context, “Why don’t you try collecting coins?” is about as helpful as “You need to get over it.”) Rather, it’s about connecting to a positive activity decoupled from work. It will not address the bullying itself, but it may well provide a safe and enjoyable space away from it.

Back to our story

For Dr. Lane, the story continues toward a good ending. She would leave her position at the community college and land on her feet, obtaining an appointment as an associate dean and professor at the University of Texas-Dallas, her current employer.

I discovered Shelley’s book because I was searching around for study abroad memoirs. As a collegian, I was fortunate to experience a life-changing semester overseas, so much that the academic geek in me periodically keeps up with the study abroad literature. I certainly wasn’t looking for any references to workplace bullying when I ordered her book! After spying Shelley’s reference to her work experience, however, I contacted her and found that she had done quite a bit of research on workplace bullying and had written a short piece reflecting upon her experiences. Here’s part of what she shared with me in an e-mail (reprinted with her permission):

By the way, I was working on a second writing project while putting together A Stirling Diary. I knew that the only way I could be hired at a university was to have a publication. At this point, I had quite a few articles published, but a book was my ticket out of [the community college]. So on some days I worked on my memoir and on other days I worked on my interpersonal communication textbook. I recall being “in the zone” as I worked on these projects, which was crucial to my mental health. Any time my mind was not engrossed in project or activity, I’d think of Cary [ed. note: Her tormenter] and how I was treated unfairly. Logically, I knew that the cortisol streaming through my system was harmful, but emotionally I couldn’t stop myself from becoming furious whenever I thought of Cary. The books most definitely helped me cope, and the textbook helped me land the job at UT Dallas.

In Shelley’s case, not only did she immerse herself in a project that took her back to a very meaningful time in her life, but also she worked on a second book project that helped to open the door to future opportunities.

Equally important, the warm and spirited tone of our e-mail exchange tells me that Shelley has bounced back, replete with a good job at a better institution, and with life, mind, and soul in a better place. For those who have experienced severe bullying at work, this type of recovery and renewal is the gold standard.

***

Related posts

Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (rev. 2014)

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012)

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Music as a work tonic

Last Friday afternoon, I could barely keep my eyes open as I tried to get some work done on my computer. I was still feeling the heavy drag of a bad cold that has been doing a number on me. A short walk around the office didn’t help much. Even two cups of black coffee weren’t delivering the desired pep in my step.

With very little gas left in my tank, I clicked to my iTunes songs and opted for a play list of favorite 80s tunes. Almost immediately, I felt a surge of energy coming back.

Nothing like a few numbers by Duran Duran and The Clash to recharge the batteries!

While it won’t rank as one of my more productive Friday afternoons, I got much more done than I thought possible when I could hardly control my drooping eyelids.

I probably could chase down some studies showing how music has this effect on people. But I don’t need the peer-reviewed articles to tell me what I’ve experienced over and again: Music can be a great tonic. It can be the pick-me-up that allows one to salvage some productivity from an otherwise low-energy day.

If you truly believe that we need workplace bullying laws, then you keep plugging away until it happens

 

Massachusetts State House (photo: DY)

Massachusetts State House, Thursday a.m. (photo: DY)

This morning I joined advocates from across the Commonwealth at the Massachusetts State House for Legislative Co-Sponsorship Day, to generate support for workplace health and safety legislation, including the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB). The event was organized by our friends at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH).

We’re in the process of reintroducing the Healthy Workplace Bill in the 2015-16 session of the Massachusetts legislature. Rep. Ellen Story (D-Amherst) is once again our lead sponsor. At the MassCOSH event, we were among a dozen or so organizations that had tables in the Great Hall of the State House, and we were able to talk to many legislators and staff members. We had 39 legislative sponsors and co-sponsors last session, and we’re looking to grow that number during the bill filing season this time around.

Pictured below are Greg Sorozan and Lisa Smith of SEIU/NAGE, the public employee union that has played an invaluable lead role in helping to organize support for the Healthy Workplace Bill in the Bay State. In addition to serving as union president, Greg is a co-coordinator of the Massachusetts Healthy Workplace Advocates. Lisa also has been a staunch supporter. Jim Redmond and Ray McGrath, two veteran lobbyists for the union who have been instrumental in working for the HWB in the State House, were also at the event to help us reach out to legislators and staff members.

Healthy Workplace Bill advocates Greg Sorozan and Lisa Smith (photo: DY)

Healthy Workplace Bill advocates Greg Sorozan and Lisa Smith (photo: DY)

I enjoy being around these folks because, among other reasons, they bring a resilient, steadfast commitment to advocating for workers that extends well beyond a single legislative session. As politically savvy advocates for workers, they know that legislation such as the HWB typically does not get enacted overnight. They embody the title of this blog post: If you truly believe that we need workplace bullying laws, then you keep plugging away until it happens.

Indeed, there’s no other way to do it. The legislative process is unpredictable and challenging. It requires infinite patience and, when things start moving, an ability to respond quickly. Those who are new to this world — including a lot of workplace bullying targets who suddenly find themselves supporting the HWB — often ask why it takes so long to enact legislation whose merits appear to be so self-evident. They need to understand, however, that we are competing for time and attention with thousands of other bills, of which only a fraction will become law.

Each legislative session hopefully brings at least incremental progress, and that’s what we’ve been able to do in Massachusetts. We no longer have to explain ourselves in nearly as much detail as when we first introduced the HWB three sessions ago. The bill has gained a familiar presence in the State House, and we’ve got a core of legislators who are committed to co-sponsoring it. And we’re attracting more and more support from worker advocacy groups and everyday citizens who press their case upon our elected officials as well.

So, if you want the HWB to become law, then we need you to sign up for the long haul. It means going back to the State House, making those calls, and sending those e-mails, as many times as it takes. We keep getting closer and closer to success, but only continued commitment and perseverance will make it happen.

***

Massachusetts residents: If you support the HWB, you may contact your state representative and state senator, and ask them to co-sponsor Rep. Ellen Story’s workplace bullying bill, House Docket 2072 (an official bill number will be provided later). The deadline for co-sponsorship in the House is January 30; the deadline for the Senate is more flexible, but we’d like to get as many Senate co-sponsors by that date as possible.

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