Television and movies often portray fashion internships as desirable, elite opportunities.  They show young fashionistas climbing the hierarchy, mingling with celebrities during the day and casually borrowing expensive dresses from the designer racks for their night escapades.  But one intern, Xuedan (“Diana”) Wang, is shattering this glorified image of the fashion industry’s internship programs.  As an unpaid accessories intern for Hearst’s Harper’s Bazaar magazine, Wang sometimes worked 50+ hours a week, performing such activities as monitoring other interns, toting garment bags to different photo shoots, completing her manager’s expense reports, and tracking packages.  After the end of her internship, Wang failed to secure a job in the fashion industry, and suddenly Hearst, along with 19 other U.S. magazines, found itself the target of a lawsuit last February.  A bitter Wang claims the magazines violated the labor laws governing unpaid internships.  This past July, it became a federal class action suit, and so far, 3,000 former Hearst interns are eligible to join.  Wang is asking for wages and damages, asserting that her unpaid internship was actually an unpaid job.

The Fair Labor Standards Act considers six criteria to determine when individuals may participate in for-profit private sector internships or training programs without compensation:

Photo by Philip Bjerknes

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 education 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.

All of the above factors must be met to ensure that an employment relationship under FLSA does not exist.  One of Wang’s attorneys, Rachel Bien, says that criterion number four is crucial to their case.  “It’s quite an uphill struggle for a company like Hearst, or any private company.  Essentially the internship has to be purely shadowing.  It’s quite a high standard to meet, and pretty much impossible when you’re actually giving interns tasks to do,” Bien stated.

Other media empires have recently redesigned their internship programs, but whether this is a direct result of Wang’s lawsuit is unknown.  For example, Conde Nast developed a new set of guidelines for its unpaid internships.  The guidelines instruct, among other things, that interns cannot work past 7 p.m. and will receive a stipend of $55o per semester.

How will Wang’s suit affect, on a small level, the internal structuring of the fashion industry, and on a larger scale, the existence of unpaid internships?  Ross Perlin in Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy reported that internships save companies about $600 million a year.  But with Wang’s lawsuit, will employers drop the programs in fear of litigation?  Proponents of unpaid internships extol the benefits of making connections in one’s field of choice and essentially getting one’s foot in the door.  Unpaid programs, advocates claim, offer interns valuable work experience that makes them more attractive to employers.  But who composes these classes of interns?  Wang was 27 years old at the time of her unpaid internship.  She said she saved so she could afford to spend months in New York without pay.  But how many young adults can truly afford to do this?  If, as advocates say, unpaid internships are the gateways to securing jobs, then is the system effectively shutting out those who cannot afford to work for free?

Wang may have been just an unpaid intern, but her lawsuit could have huge ramifications for the fashion industry and spur widespread reform of unpaid internship programs.

Mary Fletcher King

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5 Responses to Lawsuits: This Season’s Latest Trend in the Fashion Industry

  1. It sounds like Wang is suffering the way most interns do. What’s the standard here? I know there’s a 6-part test but under a plain reading of the rules, I’d argue many internships fail to pass the test. Surely FLSA wants to keep interns from the “abuse” they seem to encounter but in my mind, the fashion industry is following the status quo.

  2. JL says:

    Interesting post! I looked into the Fair Labor Standards Act a bit more. According to USC: “Not all six factors have to be present in order for the individual to be considered a trainee. The experience, however, should look more like a training/learning experience than a job.” Additionally, USC’s webpage states: “Several DOL [Department of Labor] rulings, while not directly addressing the criterion, seem to suggest that as long as the internship is a prescribed part of the curriculum, is part of the school’s educational process, and is predominately for the benefit of the student, the fact that the employer receives some benefit for the student’s services does not make the student an employee for purposes of wage and hour law.” http://careers.usc.edu/students/internships/unpaid-internships-and-the-fair-labor-standards-act/

    The DOL rulings seem to suggest that many of these fashion industry internships could satisfy the Fair Labor Standards Act requirements (as long as they are sufficiently linked with class credit). However, as Mary Fletcher mentioned in the previous comment, the pedagogical benefits associated with “delivering dresses to photoshoots” and “organizing gift closets” are questionable.

  3. Mary Fletcher King says:

    Brooke,

    Good point. Apparently Hearst had a policy that the intern must be getting school credit in order to work there. Wang had enrolled in Parsons but once she secured the internship at Hearst, she decided not to go. Instead, she gave Hearst a letter from her undergraduate, Ohio State, saying that she would be receiving school credit. Hearst released this statement: “The plaintiff in this case, Xuedan Wang, misrepresented that she was a student, when in fact, she was not. The facts will show that this case is without merit.” Although Hearst required proof of school credit, I think a lot of the same issues remain. Some students need to obtain paid work during the summer in order to pay their tuition. Thus, while the company may be offering their interns a benefit in the form of class credit, only some students can afford to get this benefit and experience.

    On a different note, why are these interns receiving class credit for delivering dresses to photoshoots, organizing gift closets, etc.?

  4. Brooke McLeod says:

    Newspapers and other publications are notorious for making people go through internships like this as a gateway to a job in their field. I think something important to note here is that normally people taking these internships are in college and would likely have a lower expectation of receiving a job afterwards. Also, they would likely still have time left when they were students to apply for a job. Wang, as a 27 year old, seems like she expected to receive a permanent job offer from this internship. Were the job prospects from the internship misrepresented to her? Also, companies only be able to hire students that would be able to receive course credit for these internships to ensure that they will receive a benefit from this position?

  5. Joanna Collins says:

    What an interesting turn of events! In an interview, one of Miss Wang’s lawyers discussed the long-term risk of pursuing such a case, and why there are usually few complaints by interns. He indicated that many unpaid interns would not speak out in these circumstances out of concern for their future career prospects. No one wants to be perceived as “litigious” or ungrateful for the experience they gained, especially in a time in which finding a job is about as easy as striking oil in your backyard. Because of the harsh realities of the job market, there is usually no one to hold companies accountable for their treatment of interns.
    I think we need to take a closer look at the industries in which such practices are particularly prevalent, such as the fashion and film industry, to see if there is room for reform in their internship practices. As someone who is no stranger to unpaid internships, I understand that interns are paid in training, experience, and opportunity. At my summer internship, there were many times when it probably would have been quicker and easier for my supervisor to just do something herself; instead, she took the time to explain it to me. However, it sounds as though there are some circumstances in which employers do take advantage of free labor without giving too much thought to their side of the bargain. If this is common practice in some industries, we should ask what reforms might restore the mutual benefit that is supposed to come from internships.