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Television and movies often portray fashion internships as desirable, elite opportunities. They show young fashionistas climbing the hierarchy as interacting 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:
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