UPDATE with response At the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards, a woman named Laurie Woods was among the volunteers scrambling to keep the food coming and drinks flowing while stars from Nebraska, 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club wined, dined and hoped for a trophy.
But Woods now says the word “volunteer” doesn’t really fit what she and scores of other workers accomplished that day and in the several weeks leading up to it, and she wants Film Independent to pay up. She has filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court seeking class-action status for workers who, she says, could put in as many as 14 hours a day every day for up to three weeks.
The workers, the suit alleges, are misclassified by Film Independent as volunteers when in fact they were non-exempt employees, a “misclassification” made “with knowledge and intent to subvert the legal protections afforded to paid employees, and to profit at expense of Volunteer Employees.”
Josh Welsh, Film Independent President, said in a statement to Deadline, “Film Independent has not yet been served with papers in this matter so I can’t comment in detail. What I can say, emphatically, is that Film Independent is now and has always been committed to treating its employees, members, and volunteers with gratitude and respect, and we adhere to all applicable labor laws regarding hiring and utilizing volunteer services. Over the years we’ve been fortunate to work with thousands of volunteers and we are deeply appreciative of their contributions to our programs and mission. I myself began as a volunteer at the organization, as have several other staff members. Many of our volunteers come back year after year, and to my knowledge not one has ever filed a complaint like this one.”
Woods’ suit, filed by Beverly Hills attorneys Shaun Setareh and Richard Lloyd Sherman, seeks class action status for volunteers who worked at Film Independent’s Independent Spirit Awards, Los Angeles Film Festival and Film Independent at LACMA.
In addition to class action status, Woods’ suit seeks unpaid wages, penalties and other damages.
Film Independent, the suit charges, recruited “thousands of volunteer employees” via websites, social media and other advertising, all with the promise of free admission to the glitzy events. “Because volunteers are expected to, and in fact did, spend the vast majority of their time performing job duties under Defendants’ direction, supervision and control,” the suit claims, “the promise of free admission was illusory.”
“In reality,” it continues, “the Volunteer employees are required to work for the duration of the event, and are never able to enjoy the event. As a result, Volunteer Employees do not receive any compensation for their ’employment’ and in many cases incur expenses for which they have not been reimbursed by Defendants.”