New York case illuminates intern exploitation

In today’s still-recovering economy, the thought of working full time with no pay is depressing. A former Hearst Communications intern claims that thought was a reality for her while she was an intern at Harper’s Bazaar, and she is suing the magazine for violating labor laws in overworking her.

The intern, Xuedan “Diana” Wang, claims she was unpaid while working 40-55 hour weeks during her four-month internship in Harper’s fashion department. The lawsuit is causing a discussion about the place of internships at prestigious organizations and providing a look at the role of interns in these organizations. The New York Times reported Feb. 1 that Wang is hoping to make the case a class action suit for all Hearst Corporation interns.

Sheena Carey, internship coordinator for the College of Communication, said if Wang indeed was working a 40-55 hour work week with no pay, it was an exploitative situation, despite the prestige of having Harper’s on her resume.

“That doesn’t give them a right to exploit their workers,” Carey said.

Carey cited the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division’s Fair Labor Standards Act, which outlines the criteria of fairness in an unpaid internship.

The legislation states that unpaid internships, though occurring within the actual operation of the facilities of the employer, must benefit the intern and be similar to the training that would be given in an educational environment. Further, the intern cannot replace a regular employee and the employer must not “derive any immediate advantages from the activities of the intern” according to the law. Finally, and pertinent to the Wang case in New York, both the employer and the intern must understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent at the internship.

Carey said her job in the College of Communication is, in part, to make sure students who take on internships are not exploited. She monitors student work through weekly journals the interns keep and seminars in which they talk about the challenges they face during their internship. Both are required to receive academic credit for the internship. Carey said she keeps the letters employers write detailing student intern duties on file.

“I look at what types of things they are doing. Are they learning more about their craft, or are they answering phones and getting coffee?” Carey said. “(The latter) is an exploitative situation and doesn’t meet our standards of what an internship opportunity should be.”

Carey said students in the College of Communication typically work 12-15 hours at their internship sites, with a maximum of 20 hours possible. But while some companies who want interns, such as nonprofits, cannot pay them, she said the number of paid internships is on the rise.

“It used to be about 25 percent of internships were paid,” Carey said. “Now it’s 50-50, but it depends on the industry.”

Laura Kestner, director of the Marquette’s Career Services Center, agreed.

Kestner said internships in journalism and the magazine industry typically do not pay, while business and engineering internships often do.

Kestner said 85 percent of interns receive job offers, so the chances of getting hired are high.

“It’s a good way to get your foot in the door and build skills, regardless of pay,” Kestner said.

She said it doesn’t make much of a difference to employers whether an intern was paid.

“I might think highly of the unpaid intern who was willing to do it without pay,” she said. “That shows that they’re driven … It’s not much difference in skills gained.”

Kestner said if every intern was paid, the number of internships available would decrease.

“If an employer can pay (but doesn’t) and is having an intern do the same work as a standard paid employee, then shame on them,” Kestner said.

Kestner said the best bet for students looking for paid internships is to look at for-profit corporations and stay away from nonprofit and service organizations. She said there are benefits to an unpaid internship, though, and internships as a whole are important.

“You’ll get networking opportunities,” Kestner said. “That is worth a lot in this economy. Internships are essential.”

Tess Quinlan, a sophomore in the College of Communications, said unpaid internships are a part of college students getting experience.

“Especially in the communications field, unpaid internships are  a great way to get experience,” Quinlan said. “But at the same time I don’t know if she’s going to win the lawsuit because when you take an internship you kind of know you’ll be working a lot without pay. They’re upfront about that.”

Hannah McCarthy, also a sophomore in the College of Communications, said that it’s circumstantial.

“It depends on what else she was doing. If she was not doing anything else that’s not unreasonable … but if she was a student or something that would be a lot to handle,” McCarthy said.