A former Hearst intern has filed a lawsuit against the company in Manhattan’s Federal District Court, with the intention of making it a class-action motion representing the “hundreds” of other unpaid interns still working for publications like Seventeen and Cosmo.
The intern in question, Xuedan Wang, worked at Harper’s Bazaar from August 2010 to December 2011 after graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in strategic communications. She claims to have regularly worked 40-hour weeks for no pay and was in charge of several other unpaid interns.
From the New York Times:
“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,” said Adam Klein, one of the lawyers for Ms. Wang. “The practice of classifying employees as ‘interns’ to avoid paying wages runs afoul of federal and state wage and hour laws.”
Unsurprisingly, the news is already causing the media world, historically one of the biggest users of intern labor, to have a fit. (Full disclosure: The Village Voice does have several unpaid interns.) Reuters reporter Jack Shafer exclaimed on Twitter that “Most interns shd pay to intern,” and went on to argue that demand for the positions wouldn’t be so high if the experience wasn’t valuable.
It seems that Shafer and others have wholeheartedly bought into a system where interns are expected to thank their employers (and/or bring them cookies) for the privilege of working for free.
This isn’t the first time unpaid internships have come under scrutiny. (The Voice ran an in-depth report on the topic earlier this month.) However, few people complain about the roles because they sometimes lead to full-time work.
But under current labor rules, there’s little question that unpaid internships should be anathema. The federal government has outlined six criteria that are supposed to determine whether an unpaid internship or fellowship is legal. The fourth one reads as follows:
The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
It is this rule that often lands companies in hot water — or would, if unpaid interns were the type to complain to the federal government. Wang obviously hopes to change that. Perhaps the only real surprise about this case is the fact that it took so long for it to happen.