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Interns Sue Hamilton College in Class Action

UTICA, N.Y. (CN) - Hamilton College is sitting on a $720 million endowment but won't pay its athletic interns/assistant coaches minimum wages, a former football assistant claims in a federal class action.

Named plaintiff Benjamin J. Kozik, who says he worked at the private college near Utica for two years, claims that there could be 40 or more class members who put in long hours for little pay in the hope of landing a full-time assistant coaching position.

Kozik claims that he told the top two officials in the Human Resources department at a Sept. 10 meeting "that interns were being 'used' to work what was essentially 'slave labor.'"

The complaint continues: "During the course of the meeting with Human Resources, [HR Director Steve] Stemkoski implied that [Athletics Director John] Hind was aware that interns in the Athletics Department were working over ninety (90) hours a week. Stemkoski added that Hind always pushed in budget meetings for more pay for employees in the Athletics Department, including interns, but it was constantly turned down."

The only defendant in the complaint is the college itself. Hamilton, founded in 1793, is one of the oldest colleges in New York. "This is a case about a college with a $650-750 million endowment that fails to pay interns in its Athletics Department ... the wages to which they are entitled to by law," the complaint states.

Kozik says he resigned in October, after the fruitless meeting the month before.

He claims the college violated the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and New York Labor Law by failing to pay its athletic interns minimum wage; by misclassifying them as part-time workers though they work more than 40 hours most weeks; by stiffing them for overtime; failing to keep accurate time records; and not offering spread-of-hours pay, which under New York law gives an extra hour at minimum wage for shifts worked longer than 10 hours.

While the Athletic Department calls the class "interns," they are not students, Kozik says. He says they meet the legal definition of employees.

Kozik claims he was paid "a flat monthly rate of pay regardless of the number of hours he worked." During his two-year tenure, that was $1,000 to $1,100 a month.

Kozik worked primarily as an assistant football coach, with wide receivers, kickers and punters. This fall, he became special teams coordinator, without any increase in pay, according to the complaint.

Kozik says he worked the 2011-12 women's basketball season as a part-time assistant coach, which boosted his monthly pay by $500 for several months.

During the 4-month football season, when Kozik worked as many as 105 hours a week, his effective hourly wage was $2.60 - "a rate almost one-third of New York's $7.25 per hour minimum wage," he says in the complaint.

His work with women's hoops - at about 100 hours a week - paid about $3.87 an hour, also below the minimum wage.

Kozik adds that during interns' off-seasons, they are expected to pitch in at athletic events, keeping the scoreboard, making game announcements and bringing equipment to the field - all to save the college money.

After football season, then, an assistant football coach might work hockey games in the winter and softball games in the spring.

In the summer, the interns are involved in recruiting and sports camps.

Hamilton College, named for the country's first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, is sometimes referred to as one of the "Little Ivies."

Tuition and board this year cost more than $55,000, according to the college's website. Its endowment is more than $720 million, according to U.S. News & World Report, which ranked Hamilton No. 16 this year among national liberal arts colleges.

Kozik says Hamilton has 29 varsity sports, each with at least one intern. It also employs full-time assistant coaches, who earn more and work fewer hours than interns.

"Interns often perform many of the same tasks as full-time assistant coaches, yet as a matter of common practice or policy receive much lower pay and are classified as part-time," the complaint states. "Interns work these long hours with the hope of receiving a full-time position" at Hamilton or elsewhere.

Kozik says the prospect of a full-time job was dangled in front of him when he began telling the new head football coach, Andrew Cohen, about his frustration with the long hours and low pay.

Cohen told him a full-time position could open "in a year or two" and Kozik and another football intern "would be at the top of the list and could 'duke it out for the position,'" according to the complaint.

Kozik claims the college "willfully misclassified" the interns as part-time workers under labor law, knowing they "would not challenge such policies to avoid jeopardizing their future as athletic coaches."

Kozik claims he shared his concerns with Cohen, the human resources director and assistant director, and the athletic director, all of whom acknowledged the low pay and long hours.

But the meetings Kozik requested brought reprisals from coach Cohen, who at one point "exploded in a fit of rage by yelling at plaintiff," according to the complaint.

Kozik resigned soon after that. He says he inquired about a November meeting he was told an administrator planned to hold about intern pay, but could not learn what took place.

He asks for a court-supervised notice of the case, to give interns and former interns a chance to join the lawsuit. He seeks class certification, unpaid overtime and minimum wages for each hour worked, spread-of-hours pay, and an additional and equal amount in liquidated damages.

He is represented by Robert Ottinger, of New York City.

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