A 28-year old woman has filed a lawsuit against Hearst Corp., seeking to recover compensation for house work for which she was unpaid. According to the New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar has been sued by Xuedan Wang, formerly an intern, seeking back wages for unpaid work at the company. The lawsuit is currently seeking class action status for the alleged hundreds of unpaid interns that work to produce the other popular magazines Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and Good Housekeeping. The lawsuit alleges that the company breaks the New York Labor Law and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by not compensating employees the minimum wage and for overtime.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and certain states have begun to crack down on these illegal internships. Many of these internships are considered legal because they award academic credit, but some do not yield credit and/or break other labor laws. The FLSA sets six requirements that an internship must meet to be considered unpaid, and these are not easy benchmarks for a company to meet. The requirements are that 1) the training is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction, 2) the training is for the benefit of the trainees, 3) the trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation, 4) the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, 5) the trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period; and 6) the employer and the trainees understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.
According to research published by XpertHR, more than four in ten employers (44%) that offer work experience for students and recent graduates do not pay them a wage. In Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, author Ross Perlin estimates that there are around 500,000 unpaid interns in the United States, subsidizing American corporations to the tune of over $2 billion per year. This frequently causes frustration among students because they either cannot afford to work an unpaid internship, and thus are denied the experience, or they struggle financially because their unpaid internship likely took the place of a paid job. Sadly, many illegal unpaid internships go unreported because interns are afraid that reporting these abuses would lead to a blacklist from employment in that field.
Interns who work unpaid private-sector internships have multiple options, though. These employees can file a federal or state wage claim to try to recover back wages, even if they had previously agreed to work for free. In addition or instead, unpaid interns can also contact a dedicated intern minimum wage attorney to see if you could possible enter a lawsuit to recover back wages for unpaid work.