The interns have arrived.
You know them by their youth, the puzzled glances around the office and the misplaced shame in the question, "Do you know where the bathroom is?"
The college women may be wearing skirts that are a bit too short for the office, and there is always the college man who thinks casual Friday means wearing an American Eagle Outfitters T-shirt, cargo shorts and flip-flops. (It really doesn't).
For employers, unpaid college interns also can be a legal liability.
Interns who are paid for their work, who really qualify more as summer help, are free to take on whatever duties an employer needs. But those interns who are working for free in exchange for college credit can act as chum for circling labor lawyers.
Fox Searchlight Pictures found this out with "Black Swan."
While Natalie Portman was in front of the camera in the role that won her an Academy Award, dozens of unpaid interns were working for free in roles for which they should have been paid, according to the complaint filed in September 2011 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
In the case, which is still ongoing, the interns said they performed bookkeeping work, acted as production assistants and even cleaned the offices.
"Unpaid interns are becoming the modern-day equivalent of entry-level employees, except that employers are not paying them for the many hours they work. This practice runs afoul of basic wage-and-hour laws," the lawsuit states.
Peter Ennis, a labor lawyer with Downtown-based firm Buchanan Ingersoll who is not involved in the Fox Searchlight case, said industries in which young people desperately want to get a foot in the door have repeatedly run into problems with their use of unpaid interns. He said problems have arisen in entertainment, media, publishing, financial services and at local market television stations where interns are doing work that should be paid.
"You cannot use unpaid interns to simply fill in for employees," Mr. Ennis said.
That is true even if the interns themselves want to work for free, which many do to get the experience. The law is clear that the primary beneficiary of an unpaid academic internship has to be the intern, Mr. Ennis said.
If interns are doing work that is normally the work of staff, then they have a right to file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board or a civil lawsuit. The case against Fox Searchlight was filed by two interns, but as a class action.
The U.S. Department of Labor has said unpaid internships must meet six criteria:
• The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment;
• The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
• The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under the close supervision of existing staff;
• The employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern and, on occasion, its operations may actually be impeded;
• The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
• The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
John A. Challenger -- CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago based outplacement consulting firm -- said companies are moving away from unpaid internships.
Instead of a teaching opportunity, he said, Human Resources departments in companies across the country are seeing summer internships as a way to test talent they might hire after graduation.
Ann Belser: email@example.com or 412-263-1699.