It’s a well-accepted fact that most media internships are unpaid. While financial interns often earn hefty summer salaries, journalism interns rarely even receive daily stipends to cover their subway fares. Students accept unpaid internships in exchange for networking opportunities, experience in research and transcription, and the occasional bylined clip. A few probably earn Starbucks Gold Cards too. Everyone has to “pay their dues” at some point, but are employers taking advantage of unpaid interns? Is it illegal?
A former intern for fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar is suing the Hearst Corporation for violating federal and state wage and hour laws. Hearst does not pay its interns, and Xuedan Wang has said that she worked as many as 55 hours a week. Anyone who has worked at a fashion magazine can tell you that the work often entails physically strenuous tasks such as coordinating pick-ups and deliveries of fashion samples. The hours are long, and the work is not easy.
The U.S. Labor Department mandates that unpaid internships are legal in the context of an educational training program, as long as interns do not displace regular employees and the employer can derive no “immediate” benefit from their work. This definition in itself is highly problematic. While interns are certainly receiving educational training, many publications are suffering financially and will hire a group of unpaid interns in place of a paid employee. But as New York Magazine points out, internships are mutually beneficial arrangements.
In a 2010 story for The New York Times, Steven Greenhouse said that internship complaints are a rarity. In an iffy economy, internships lead to job prospects, and students don’t want to jeopardize their careers. That’s partly why Wang’s case is so important. Wang has made a bold move in suing Hearst, and it is unlikely that she will work in magazine publishing again.
Although Wang’s frustrations are valid, it’s important to keep in mind that internships are not binding. Wang could have walked away at any moment. While employers certainly do need be aware of how they treat their interns, they do not hold all of the responsibility. Interns may not have the legal protection of employment discrimination laws, but they do have the agency to walk away if they are being treated poorly. This certainly isn’t the answer to discrimination, but internships are not contractual, salaried jobs. Internships are intended to be short-term, transitory and experimental.
Stay posted to see if this turns into a class action suit.