FROM FASHION WEEK TO HOLLYWOOD: Unpaid Interns Are Fighting Back

Unpaid Interns are Fighting Back!

student interns

It’s happening from the East Coast to the West Coast: Unpaid interns in the most glamorous industries are realizing that a few moments brushing shoulders with a star while fetching them coffee, or running mindless errands in the Big Apple for an idolized fashion designer, may not be sufficient compensation for ridiculously long hours of menial labor. The lure of glamorous contacts and top-level industry exposure continue to bring in unsuspecting young people who find the experience ultimately lacking in the hoped-for benefits.

Interns as Free Labor

Given the current economy and its effects on the job market, the expansion of internship as a labor source has reached record proportions. But is it a proper source of labor? The advantages to employers of “hiring” young, inexperienced workers to perform all manner of unpleasant tasks for no pay is obvious. But what’s in it for the interns? These unpaid workers are beginning to recognize that their employers are taking advantage of them, and they are asking for compensation for their labor. In increasingly large numbers, they are filing lawsuits and organizing group protests. It is no wonder then that the rampant practice of “free hires” has suddenly found itself under a national spotlight that is scrutinizing the practice and taking employers to task.

On February 1, of this year, Diana Wang, formerly an intern with Harper’s Bazaar, filed a lawsuit against publishing behemoth Hearst Corporation. The class action was a first for the fashion industry, seeking damages for Wang’s five months of unpaid labor in the magazine’s accessories department. At her “job” at Harper’s Bazaar, Wang worked 40 to 55 hours a week as a “head intern,” supervising eight other unpaid workers as they carried bags of clothes to and from PR firms, effectively serving as a glorified messenger service.

It will now be up to the court to decide if Wang’s experience at Harper’s Bazaar was a job that deserved compensation. She claims that the work did not comply with the U.S. Department of Labor’s guidelines for unpaid internships, and Hearst’s lawyers have said they are gearing up for a battle. No surprise that employers want to preserve this relative goldmine of slave labor.

The Case of the Black Swan

A federal judge in New York recently ruled that unpaid interns on the movie Black Swan should have received at least the minimum wage, and paved the way for a class action to go forward against the Fox Entertainment Group. In light of that decision, the question posed by Wang and other similarly situated interns is one that is going to continue to be raised.

Considered “gutsy and improbable” when it was first filed, the Black Swan case pioneered the concept that interns could challenge the current unpaid structure of internships, and win, in court. Since that landmark decision, fifteen similar lawsuits have followed, with more soon to come. The companies being sued include famous television and fashion personalities, famous fashion houses and multinational subsidiaries flush with profits. All of these employers have refused to pay young workers a minimum of $7.25 an hour for what in most cases is grueling work. In addition to failing to pay these workers a fair wage, many of these programs expose young people to sexual harassment and various forms of discrimination, while denying them redress as they are officially classified “outside the scope of employment,” and thus often excepted from the protections allowed the rest of the working population under state and federal worker protection laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The federal law on internships is clear: if internships at for-profit companies are to be unpaid, they must foster an educational environm

ent to the extent that the intern is receiving virtually all the benefit of the arrangement. (These rules exclude nonprofit and governmental agencies.)

Though there are still legitimate internships available – those that pay, train and lead to real employment opportunity – one cannot assume that the term “internship” in a job advertisement will appropriately define what, in many cases, amounts to unpaid slave labor.

The Fair Pay Campaign

The new Fair Pay Campaign, founded by Mikey Franklin, seeks to build a movement and is enlisting the aid of those targeted for these imbalanced “job” opportunities to do so. In fact, “fair intern practice” organizations are sprouting up across America and beyond, many seeking to co-opt trade unions in their struggle, and savvy union reps are recognizing this work force for a future source of membership.

So, for anyone who is seeking a career advancement opportunity and thinking about taking an unpaid internship within any for-profit industry, no matter how appealing being on the “inside” might be: Educate yourself. If you feel you must take the “job” to beef up that transcript or resume in order to remain on a level playing field in this tight job market, then consider your legal options for restitution once it has been completed. No pay, long hours, exposure to discrimination and harassment – the internship structure is awash in broken promises to America’s students – it is a system that cannot continue to go unchecked.Those who can’t afford to work without pay are eager for the chance to break into the intern-heavy fields that are now all but closed to them. The class divide between the children of wealthy parents, who can afford to take these “glamorous” glorified gofer jobs on a Hollywood set, and those for whom an unpaid gig is simply not an option, as student loans reach critical mass in this country, is another factor that is weighing heavily in the discussion. The inequities created by this heretofore unchecked system need to be challenged and ultimately put to an end.

If you are currently an intern in such a program, or have recently concluded an internship for which you received no financial compensation, contact Lazear Mack to discuss your options.

Lazear Mack, LLP
Employment Law Attorneys
436 14th Street, Suite 1117
Oakland, CA


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