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NYC Class Action Employment Lawsuit Pits Interns Against Hearst

A New York City employment lawsuit filed by a former intern at Harper’s Bazaar has been granted class action status, with some 3,000 people eligible to join in a fight alleging that intern employment practices at Hearst Corp. violated state and federal labor laws.The suit alleges the company aggressively worked unpaid interns, who routinely worked overtime without compensation and were critical to the company’s operation. Yet, it was rare for the firms to actually extend a job offer or even recommendation. Hearst has begun fighting back, e-mailing thousands of former interns in an effort to find some willing to testify regarding the value of their intern experience.

Our New York employment attorneys understand the decision rendered in this case – and we could see one as early as next year – will have a greater impact on some industries than others. That’s because some industries, such as fashion, film and media, have always tended to rely a bit more heavily on the work of interns as part of daily operations.

These are cut-throat industries, with a fierce level of competition for even the unpaid positions. For a long time, these companies have probably felt as if that insulated them from legal action.

Speaking out against these companies’ practices would inevitably lead to a person being black-balled from the industry. And in fact, following the filing of this lawsuit, many in the fashion and publishing industry have been highly critical of the interns. Among those big names are CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Vogue’s Grace Coddington.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act holds that interns who work at private, for-profit firms and who qualify as employees, as opposed to trainees, must typically be paid a minimum wage, plus overtime for any hours they work over 40 a week.

However, there are some situations in which interns may be unpaid. In most cases, in order to meet this standard, the following criteria must be met:

  • The internship, despite including actual operation of the employer’s facilities, is more akin to the training that would be received in an educational environment;
  • The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  • The intern doesn’t displace any regular workers, but instead works closely under the supervision and guidance of existing staffers;
  • The employer provides training, yet derives no immediate advantage from the intern’s work, and in fact, may be impeded by their presence;
  • The intern understands that he or she isn’t entitled to receive a job when the internship is done;
  • Both the intern and employer are on the same page about the fact that the position is unpaid.

In this case, in addition to Harper’s Bazaar, interns from Redbook, Marie Claire and Esquire have also joined the suit. They are seeking back wages, overtime and other damages.

It’s not expected that this suit, if successful, would end the unpaid internships altogether. However, we understand the goal is to prompt companies to change their policies so that interns can be paid rather than provided school credit. A number of media organizations have already done so, including Fox and Gawker Media.

The Law Offices of Ira S. Newman provides employment litigation representation in New York City, Long Island, Great Neck and throughout the area. Call 516-487-7375 or send us an e-mail.

Additional Resources:
Hearst Corp. Seeks Allies In Lawsuit Against Unpaid Interns: Report, Dec. 5, 2012, By Christopher Zara, International Business Times
Mores Blog Entries:
Recession Used an Excuse for Gender Discrimination in NYC?, July 31, 2012, New York City Employment Litigation Attorney Blog