Labor Laws Don't Just Apply to Unpaid Interns Who Are Good at Their Jobs

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Previously unseen court documents show that the former Harper's Bazaar intern suing Hearst allege that she did not do her job that well, but her lawyer, who is crusading against the practice of unpaid internships in glamorous fields, says that doesn't change the law. "It has nothing to do with the legal claims in this case," Elizabeth Wagoner, the lawyer representing Diana Wang, told The Atlantic Wire. In court documents unearthed by Buzzfeed's Jessica Testa, senior accessories editor Sam Broekema wrote that Wang's bad behavior included "repeatedly provided interns with the wrong address for a pick-up or return," and covering up those mistakes instead of alerting her supervisors. He also said she risked losing or breaking the magazine's expensive merchandise and had overall bad performance that led to a talking-to at some point during her stint.

But as Wagoner argues, no matter how awful she was, Wang still deserved to be paid under the Fair Labor and Standards Act. Since the case hinges on whether unpaid interns are employees (who must legally be paid) or there to learn (and thus no pay), it seems odd that Hearst would get into Wang's poor on-the-job performance, since that seems to suggest their interns have a job to do and not just soaking up education. 

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Wang's lawsuit has so far had little effect on the culture at Hearst, which sounds particularly brutal: "The magazine's editor-in-chief, Glenda Bailey, has an intern meet her at her car every day to carry her handbag up," a former intern told Testa. But, future Harper's Bazaar interns looking to get paid shouldn't give up yet. Though only three other interns have joined the class action at this point, that's because notice hasn't gone out to the other 3,000 possible plaintiffs yet, Wagoner explained to The Atlantic Wire. "We are waiting on the court to order the form of notice," explained Wagoner. "Then, the court orders will go out to thousands of former Hearst interns and people will have an opportunity to join," she said. After that point, the case will proceed.

The court will decide if interns are employees by the end of 2012 or early 2013, at which point we could expect Wang's case to have real effects.* "We feel pretty confident that [when] the court is in a position to rule on the evidence, it will find that interns are employees," Wagoner told The Atlantic Wire. In that case, she says Hearst would have to offer back-pay and ultimately "it would have ramifications on Hearst's internship program." That could lead to various outcomes, including getting rid of the internship program altogether. Of course, at that point Hearst could appeal. Or they might win, who knows. For now, however, Wang and future Hearst interns just have to wait. 

*This post originally misstated when the court would decide on the case. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.