Writers and Editors (Pat McNees's blog)
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Unpaid internships under fire

September 25, 2012

Tags: unpaid internships, interns, magazines, media, Department of Labor

Young things aspiring to work as interns on fashion magazines or elsewhere in media might want to read Jessica Testa's story about ex-Harper's Bazaar intern Jessica Wang, (The Woman Who Could Bring Down Fashion Internships) (Buzzfeed, Sept 2012). Wang is suing Harper's Bazaar. Bottom line; interns on fashion magazines schlep expensive goods around town for little or no money, sometimes benefiting from perks such as closeness to famous names in the industry, but not necessarily learning much about the profession. The industry is glamorous enough that it can take advantage of free or token-payment labor, justified as "educational."

College students find many of the internships posted in Ed2000 ("a volunteer, networking and mentoring organization committed to helping aspiring and junior-level editors reach their dream magazine job"). Ed2000 published an interview with Wang about her suit: Exclusive Ed Interview: Diana Wang, the Intern Muckraker? Wang told reporter Gennifer Delman: "Once upon a time, companies used to invest in entry-level workers. They used to train them and spend money investing in employees and they don’t do that anymore. They’re just using interns more and more to do entry-level work.

Kayleen Schaefer, in The Norma Rae of Fashion Interns (New York Magazine, 9-11-12), writes: "She chafed at tasks unrelated to the magazine’s operations, like hand-delivering new outfits to editors between Fashion Week shows. 'It kind of felt like you were working in shipping and receiving,' Wang says. "

Interns on the Charlie Rose show, which is also being sued (Former Intern at ‘Charlie Rose’ Sues, Alleging Wage Law Violations (Steven Greenhouse, Media Decoder, NY Times, 3-14-12), also work hard, often at jobs that might teach them something about producing a show. Writes Greenhouse: "The lawsuit noted that unpaid internships have proliferated among many white-collar professions, including film, journalism, fashion and book publishing. Elizabeth Wagoner, a lawyer for Ms. [Lucy] Bickerton, said: “Systematic violation of federal and state laws that coverage internships appears all too common at some media companies. More and more unpaid interns are standing up for their right to earn a wage for their work.” See also Greenhouse's The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not?

Lawsuits from unpaid interns are not a new phenomenon. In a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures, which produced the movie "The Black Swan," two men who worked on the film as unpaid interns claimed last year that "the interns do menial work that should have been done by paid employees and did not provide them with the type of educational experience that labor rules require in order to exempt employers from paying interns." (Steven Greenhouse, Interns, Unpaid by a Studio, File Suit, Business Day, NY Times, 9-28-11). Plaintiff Alex Footman, who majored in film studies at Wesleyan, "said his responsibilities included preparing coffee for the production office, ensuring that the coffee pot was full, taking and distributing lunch orders for the production staff, taking out the trash and cleaning the office." Plaintiff Eric Glatt, MBA, an accounting intern for “Black Swan," said he "prepared documents for purchase orders and petty cash, traveled to the set to obtain signatures on documents and created spreadsheets to track missing information in employee personnel file."

The U.S. Dept of Labor's six criteria for unpaid internships are as follows:
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.

Thanks to Anita Bartholomew for calling my attention to the Buzzfeed story, which linked to most of the other stories mentioned above.