Journalism

The Interns are Revolting! Or, a Former Unpaid Intern for Harper's Bazaar Wants A Class Action Lawsuit

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It's happening again. In spring 2010, Obama's Labor Department was flexing its muscles extra hard over supposedly exploitative employees who didn't pay their interns. Now, once again the unpaid interns of the world (and their various supporters and legal support) are rising up, revolting and trying to make a case that they are being used by employers who overwork them, don't provide a "real educational experience," and of course don't pay them a salary. Basically, the Board of Labor needs to fix this problem in some way or another. Even though there are already rules in place which cover unpaid internships:

The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment; 2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff; 4. 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;  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

One former intern in particular, notes The New York Times blog, would like to turn her work experience into a class action lawsuit:

In her lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan, the intern, Xuedan Wang, and her law firm are asking to make the case a class action on behalf of what they say are hundreds of unpaid interns at Heart Magazines, which also publishes Cosmopolitan, Seventeen and Good Housekeeping….

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."

According to the lawsuit, Ms. Wang, who graduated from Ohio State University in 2010, was an intern at Harper's Bazaar from August 2011 to December 2011 and said she generally worked 40 hours a week but sometimes as many as 55 hours. Her lawyers said that Ms. Wang, with a degree in strategic communications, coordinated pickups and deliveries of fashion samples between Harper's Bazaar and fashion vendors and showrooms and assigned other unpaid interns to help carry out the pickups and deliveries….

"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."

Basically, Wang says she was treated like an employee but without the benefits or the salary. Hearst counters that their interns are told about employment conditions in advance and they offer academic credit. While musing this lawsuit, please note this May 2010 New York Times article which has a whole bunch of anecdotes from interns who did or didn't feel like their unpaid tenures at various places were worth it. That sounds about right.

Yes, it's true that sometimes people can't afford to work for free. Or they get screamed at, overworked, all the cliches must ring true for some poor sap somewhere. Journalism internships are particularly notorious for being unpaid (Reason is, of course, an exception!). 

And yes, I once wanted to intern for The Oxford American. And even if they hadn't declined (I'm assuming that was due to my tragic case of Yankee-itus), I wouldn't have been able to work all summer in Arkansas without getting paid for it. I applied just for the hell of it.  Requiring them to pay me or any other intern would —obviously — have simply funneled money the magazine could have spent elsewhere. Maybe then they would have had to hire only one intern, or cut a staff position, or ya know, just not hire any interns at all. 

Commenters, feel free to joke about imminent class-action lawsuits for hat tips not given.

Read Tim Cavanaugh and John Stossel on the hullabaloo over unpaid internships back in May'10.

NEXT: Sheldon Richman on Central Planning at the Federal Reserve

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  1. Seems likes unpaid internships could serve a valuable role in journalism. Journalists that take them should be considered suckers, and should never be allowed to perform any reporting that might require being skeptical about their subjects, sources, and contacts. Their earnest gullibility makes them more useful as PR flacks, however.

    1. I have run an internship program for future political reporters for 23 years, placing students in DC news bureaus while giving them seminars on politics. Apparently, the Harper’s Bizarre “victim” and a trial lawyer are trying to get rich quick. I wrote about the Labor Dept. nonsense here at Reason.com in 2010:
      A Nanny State Assault on Internship Programs: The trouble with the Labor Department’s one-size-fits-all agenda.
      https://reason.com/archives/201…..t-on-inter

      1. By “Bizarre,” I was, of course, referring to the “victim” and her inability to exercise her own free will. (Actually, I didn’t really mean to spell it that way, but it worked out.)

  2. Has anyone in here ever actually seen a copy of Harper’s Bazaar, let alone read one? Bazaar is a very Bizarre word. You know how if you repeat a word it can start to sound not like a word anymore?

    1. Try it with “the.” Your world will never be right again.

  3. Reason pays its interns? It doesn’t flim-flam orphans into doing months of unpaid drudgery polishing monocles and oiling The Jacket? I want my donation back!

    Seriously, the only people who’d join this class action are those with no future in the industry. Would you want to employ someone who accepts an unpaid position with their eyes open, and then sues you? Or who doesn’t understand the trade-off – you do crappy unpaid stuff to get a foot in the door? Who clearly doesn’t get it – ALL life is a trade-off?

  4. Hey Steigy: tell Errey we heard what he did there. “Crabb had his claws all over him,” indeed.

    Oh wait. Wrong Steigy.

    1. Hell, you’re always the right Steigy.

  5. Lucy, since I know you read your comments, breaking news in the Seattle police corruption saga:

    http://publicola.com/2012/01/2…..er-of-spd/

    Legislator who is a former cop drafts bill to shut out Federal oversight.

  6. (Reason is, of course, an exception!)

    Thank God we didn’t lose Lucy to SEVENTEEN !

    If they are now publishing The Oxford American in Arkansas shouldn’t it be renamed The Ozark American, or perhaps The Ouachita American ?

  7. #4 is patently absurd. Why in the world would any business let someone in the door if it’s not to their benefit?

    -jcr

  8. Nobody put a gun to her head, and if she didn’t think she was gaining anything from the internship, she was free to quit showing up.

    -jcr

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