Beauty School Students Call Their Internships a Ruse for Free Labor

, New Jersey Law Journal

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Students of a New Jersey beauty school have joined in a putative class action claiming they were put to work at commercial establishments without pay in violation of federal and state law.

The suit alleges that the internships Capri Institute mandates for its students are devices for staffing clinical salons at its campuses in Paramus, Clifton, Kenilworth and Brick, which provide hair, makeup and manicure services to the public.

In order to graduate, Capri Institute students must put in 300 hours of classroom time and 900 hours in salon work. Students are pulled out of class when the salons get busy, says plaintiff lawyer Stephen DeNittis of DeNittis Osefchen in Marlton.

According to the suit, students would gain needed experience if the school provided services to the public for free or at a nominal fee to cover the cost of materials, but instead Capri salons are run as a profit center.

Customers at Capri's four salons pay fees ranging from $4 for an upper lip waxing and $7 for a haircut to $20 for a permanent wave, according to the company website.

"In my mind, I don't believe it's a true internship," says DeNittis. "It seems like [Capri Institute] is having its cake and eating it too."

He says that students cutting customers' hair are not closely supervised and must provide their own supplies and equipment.

The suit, Atkins v. Capri Training Center Inc., was brought on behalf of all Capri Institute students required to work without pay at one of the company's for-profit New Jersey salons between Nov. 8, 2010 and the present.

The class is believed to contain several hundred members and each claim is estimated at $5,000, says DeNittis.

The class members allege they have an employment relationship with the defendants for the purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law because they made it unnecessary for the defendants to employ paid workers, and because they perform janitorial and clerical duties that do not confer any educational benefit.

The suit, filed Nov. 12, names as defendants the school and its owner and principal, Anne Muenster-Sinton. The defendants have not yet filed answers. No lawyer has entered an appearance.

Muenster-Sinton did not return a phone message left at the school's administrative office. A person who answered the phone there said no one else was available to discuss the suit.

DeNittis's cocounsel are his partner, Joseph Osefchen, and Las Vegas attorney Leon Greenberg.

The three raised similar claims in a suit filed Nov. 12 in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against the Jean Madeline Aveda Institute of Philadelphia.

The issue of unpaid internships gained a higher profile in June when U.S. District Judge William Pauley III, in the Southern District of New York, certified a class action against Fox Searchlight Pictures and held that the company violated the FLSA by not paying its interns. The ruling in that case, Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, is on appeal.

Pauley relied in part on a U.S. Department of Labor fact sheet describing when internships may be unpaid. Among other criteria set forth, an employer may not derive any benefit from an unpaid internship.

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