In news that is really only surprising because it's never happened before, a major fashion magazine is getting sued by one of its former interns.
According to the New York Times, Xuedan Wang interned at Harper's Bazaar from August 2010 through December 2011 for 40-55 hours per week and today filed a lawsuit against Hearst (the fashion glossy's publisher) accusing them of violating state and federal wage and hour laws by not paying her when she was doing the work of a paid employee.
From the Times:
The lawsuit against Hearst states, “Employers’ failure to compensate interns for their work, and the prevalence of the practice nationwide, curtails opportunities for employment, fosters class divisions between those who can afford to work for no wage and those who cannot, and indirectly contributes to rising unemployment.”
Over the years, there have been as many articles about the legality and fairness of unpaid internships (like ours about how absurd they can be) as there have been about hipsters and gluten-free diets--which is to say, a lot. However, there was a big one that ran in the New York Times back in April 2010 that came closest to providing solid answers. It called out a list of federal legal criteria that must be satisfied in order for an unpaid internship to be considered legal and suggested that the Federal Labor Department would start enforcing them more strongly. This criteria seems to be what Wang and her law firm are using to sue Hearst.
When we wrote about the 2010 story, our friends at Above the Law said these internships were usually considered legal as long as the intern received school credit. However, Wang had already graduated and was working full time doing, reportedly, fairly menial tasks like coordinating pickups and deliveries and maintaining records (and ordering around more low-level interns to do even more menial things).
This circumstance of college grads having to work unpaid internships for lack of more lucrative opportunities is becoming increasingly common. I personally know a couple of people who have done this at equally prominent companies and it's easy to see why. It prevents gaps in employment and, if you're lucky and valued, can often help lead to a full time job at the company once one becomes available.
Presumably, this wasn't the case for Wang and so, we feel her pain. Though we're a little confused by why she was allowed to intern at HB full-time, obviously without school credit. A friend of mine who interned in the fashion department of a different Hearst publication confirmed that all interns have to be able to receive school credit and submit a letter from their school to HR--meaning Wang's internship was probably somewhat under the table.
The situation definitely isn't black and white and it will be interesting to see if more Hearst interns will come forward. Wang and her law firm claim the company has employed hundreds of illegal interns and hope to create class action lawsuit, so employers at Elle, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen and Town & Country better start crossing their T's and dotting their I's.