Film ‘Internship’ Was Just a Sweatshop, Man Claims

     SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) – A group of entertainment companies ran “a student ‘sweat shop’ masquerading as an ‘internship,'” treating interns like “indentured servants,” and paying employees “slave wages,” a former intern claims in court.
     Alex Iseri sued David Junker, FilmEd Academy of the Arts, FilmEd Entertainment, and Cinematic Arts Experience, in Orange County Court.
     Iseri claims Junker and his companies “conned” him and other students into internships followed by jobs that paid 1940s-level minimum wages, under the guise of mentorship in filmmaking.
     He claims they got him fired from a teaching job by making false accusations against him.
     Founded by Junker in 2003, Cinematic Arts Experience partnered with FilmEd Academy of the Arts to organize the annual Orange County Film Festival.
     “Designed as a showcase for student work from across Orange County, the Orange County Film Festival provides a unique opportunity for audiences to get a glimpse of passionate storytelling, conceived and created by the filmmakers of tomorrow,” according to the company’s website.
     Among other activities, Junker’s companies produce and market video yearbooks for high schools, according to the complaint.
     Iseri says he met Junker in 2004, his junior year at Foothill High School, when Junker recruited him into a video yearbook summer workshop and class.
     “In or around that time, Junker falsely represented to plaintiff, as well as members of Foothill High School faculty that the video yearbooks that he produced used licensed music, when in fact, plaintiff later learned that Junker habitually used copyrighted music without first obtaining legal clearance or paying royalties for the use of said music,” the complaint states.
     “Subsequently, in or about the fall of 2005, plaintiff’s freshman year in college at
     Cal State University, Long Beach (‘CSULB’), Junker asked plaintiff to intern for him and plaintiff agreed, believing that Junker would mentor and assist plaintiff in achieving his dream of becoming a filmmaker. Unbeknownst to plaintiff at the time, however, Junker had no intention of mentoring him, but was simply assembling a student ‘sweat shop’ masquerading as an ‘internship.’
     “Indeed, plaintiff and other high school and college students were conned by Junker into ‘interning’ for him and his companies, when in reality, defendants treated them as indentured servants. Indeed, plaintiff and other similarly situated high school and college students received absolutely no school credit whatsoever and were illegally paid slave wages of $100 per month, with plaintiff working a minimum of 160 hours and as many as 250 hours per month in order to meet defendants’ deadlines for their lucrative student yearbook contracts. To put this in perspective, these outrageously low wages equate range from 40 cents to 62 cents an hour, the minimum wage last seen in the 1940s!”
     In 2006, Junker hired Iseri as a full-time employee, according to the complaint.
     Iseri claims that Junker’s employees routinely worked up to 100 hours a week and were paid the equivalent of $1 per hour.
     “In addition to his regular duties, logging, editing and transferring video for the student year books that defendants produced in their ‘intern’ sweatshop, plaintiff and other ‘interns’ taught 10-hour days six weeks in the summer for defendant FilmEd’s workshops for no pay whatsoever beyond the outrageous and illegal $400 per month that defendants paid plaintiff,” the complaint states.
     “Additionally, plaintiff and other aggrieved employees were required to work 12+ hour days in all of December until early January each year to help defendants stage an elaborate film festival. Plaintiff and these other aggrieved employees were only given Christmas Day and New Year’s Day off and again were paid illegally low wages.”
     Iseri claims Junker and his companies hid their “illegal sweatshop” from the high school administration and faculty.
     “Plaintiff was absolutely miserable working for defendants, who regularly paid him slave wages and worked him to exhaustion, but he continued to do so through early 2010 since the economy was in a deep recession and jobs were very hard to come by, especially for high school and college students such as plaintiff,” the complaint states. “Defendants were well aware of this fact, constantly threatening and intimidating plaintiff. Indeed, defendants repeatedly told plaintiff that he better keep his mouth shut about defendants’ illegal employment practices if he wanted a good recommendation for his future prospective employers.
     “Subsequently, when plaintiff graduated from college in or about late 2009, defendants told him that he would soon be laid off, falsely claiming that they could not pay him any more (much less legal wages), when in reality, defendants were grossing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually while they paid plaintiff and numerous other purported interns slave wages.” (Parentheses in complaint).
     Iseri claims the companies failed to pay overtime wages, forced employees to work while clocked out for meal breaks, and denied them rest breaks, even when they worked 12-hour shifts.
     He claims they let employees go without paying them all wages due.
     In April this year, the IRS found that the defendants had illegally classified Iseri and presumably other employees as independent contractors to avoid employment tax liability, according to the complaint.
     Iseri says he notified the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, but has not received a response that the agency intends to investigate the alleged violations.
     He claims that in the fall of 2011 the defendants disparaged him, getting him fired from a teaching job in the Film and Electronic Arts Department at Cal State University.
     Iseri seeks back pay and compensatory and punitive damages for intentional interference with contractual relations, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, unfair competition, and California Labor Code violations.
     He is represented by Scott Richter of West Hollywood.
     Junker did not return requests for comment.

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