By Dave Jamieson
A former intern for The Howard Stern Show has sued the radio personality’s broadcaster, Sirius XM Radio, claiming that the company’s unpaid internship program violates labor law.
In a complaint filed in federal court last week, Melissa Tierney says she interned at Stern’s show for five months in 2011, spending between 24 to 36 hours per week running errands, reviewing news clips and fetching food for on-air personalities and guests. She said she wasn’t paid at all for her time.
Tierney argues that Sirius XM cut its labor costs by wrongfully classifying her as exempt from minimum wage protections. Her lawsuit is a proposed class-action that, if given the green light by a judge, could cover other unpaid interns at the satellite radio provider stretching back to 2008.
Sirius XM “would have hired additional employees or required existing staff to work additional hours” had the company not had unpaid interns like Tierney, the suit alleges. Tierney made her claims under federal and New York State minimum wage laws as well as a New York ordinance on wage theft.
Tierney and a Sirius XM spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. According to the Sirius XM website, its internships are unpaid and available only to enrolled college students who will receive credit.
Lawsuits over unpaid internships have become common in the New York media world. A former Harper’s Bazaar intern sued the Hearst Corporation in a high-profile class-action in 2012. The magazine group Conde Nast, owner of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, announced last year that it would shut down its internship program after it was sued over pay. The company recently settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum.
The lawsuits have helped kick off a lively debate over the use of unpaid interns, a practice that many people argue closes the media and policy spheres off from those of lesser means. Students and recent college grads from upper- and middle-class families are far better equipped to spend several months in an expensive city like New York or Washington while not earning any money.
The question of whether or not individual programs violate the law has been left up to judges. The U.S. Labor Department has issued guidance to help employers determine whether or not their interns need to be paid under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The cases largely hinge on who benefits more from the intern’s time — the intern or the company — and how much the intern can reasonably be expected to learn from the experience.
As HuffPost reported Monday, even the White House has come under fire for its unpaid internship program, which brings an estimated 300 students and recent grads to Washington each year. Government offices are exempt from the rules covering when an internship must be paid, making the White House’s program perfectly legal, although worker advocates say the White House should lead by example and start paying its interns.