When Ed first heard about the lawsuit that a former intern at Harper’s Bazaar was bringing against Hearst, Ed was blown away. Taking on one of the world’s biggest magazine publishing companies? Suing it for not paying her for her work as an intern? Whoa. That takes some serious chutzpa. Now, she’s also suing another former internship post at Fenton/Fallon, a jewelry design company. Who is this girl?
Well Ed couldn’t sleep at night until he got the story straight from her, so this week he tracked her down to ask a few questions. Edsters, meet Xuedan Wang (she goes by Diana by the way). She was amazingly candid about her experience and her intentions — and her attorney, Elizabeth Wagoner at Outten & Golden LLP, also had a few words to say as well. Heck, Ed hasn’t been this interested in law since his Media Law 400 class! Wang’s case — and perhaps the case of hundreds others who join her — could very well change your career in magazines before it even begins. Read on, whippersnappers.
Ed: What do you want to happen as a result of this case?
Xuedan “Diana” Wang: I really hope that the lawsuit would regulate what the employer allows the intern to do task-wise and the hours interns work. There has been no oversight or regulation about those types of issues with internships. Every other kind of employment that I can think of has some laws or regulation in terms of what is okay in terms of hours, minimum wage. [That’s $7.25 an hour in New York, btw — Ed]
Ed: How will this case affect the magazine industry?
Wang’s Lawyer Elizabeth Wagoner: What I think it means for the magazine industry more broadly is simply that they do face class-action lawsuits over their internship programs. Hearst had tried to argue that since interns may do slightly different work across the magazines that they couldn’t proceed as a collective or class-action based on those differences. What this opinion means is that it doesn’t matter that they had slightly different responsibilities; the fact that they all worked in Hearst’s unpaid internship program are similarly situated and can then proceed as a group. I’m sure that other magazine publishers are looking at that decision as a way to avoid liability on a group-basis. Obviously they would prefer to only have to owe wages to a person at a time, rather than thousands of interns that have worked for them over the years. This means that, as a precedent, interns can proceed as a group.
Ed: Diana, can you detail the specific duties that you found inappropriate or unlawful during your time at Hearst?
DW: The type of work that interns were doing at Bazaar put them at risk safety-wise. Day-to-day, the interns would be out on errand runs carrying bags and bags of samples. There were times when I was carrying several bags and there was no way I could get through the subway turnstile to get back to the office or to the next location. Sometimes the other interns would actually come back and tell me about the physical struggle they had with all the packages they had to carry around. There were interns who were tripping, falling, and dropping things. That kind of thing I just felt was so utterly outrageous for the magazine to put that burden on interns and put them at risk like that. It really bothered me a lot that I was the person who was giving these commands to other interns.
I think it’s very embarrassing for the intern to go back to their families and tell them this is what they do all day. This is an internship. I know that the idea of an internship has evolved a lot over the years. You still have to pre-qualify for an internship as a college student, someone who is here to build on their education, and this is not education. There is absolutely no learning involved.
Ed: Most companies require college credit but often that costs the intern hundreds or thousands of dollars. Did you get college credit for your internship? Did you have to pay for it?
DW: Well, I had arranged for a letter to be sent out by an advisor at my college where I went to for undergrad. I sent the letter that was drawn by my advisor to Bazaar, because they required proof that you were receiving academic credit. But in the end, I actually didn’t end up getting those credit hours because I couldn’t afford to pay for those hours, which would have cost me $2,650 and $700. I tried to use a payment plan to pay off those hours and I just couldn’t, so in the end I didn’t get those hours.
Ed: A lot of comments on Ed’s FB and Twitter page say that interns have to “pay their dues.” Do you disagree with that idea?
DW: I think that people don’t acknowledge the way things are because of the status quo: That to get anywhere you just have to pay your dues, keep your head down, and do the work. I do think there’s a lot of stipulation about the fact that interns should be grateful to be allowed to work at these prestigious places for free.
Ed: How do you respond to some of the criticism that has been written about you?
DW: There are some people who have responded to the coverage in the media about this case by saying that I should know better than to expect anyone to hire me after this. It’s really disappointing that they think that someone who was treated unfairly, taken advantage of, and decided to fight back or not retreat from that deserves to not be employed and would prove to be a risk for the next employer. I think it’s really backward to say something like that. The money that I poured into these internships that I did all went into those companies. All the resources, the labor, and the money I’ve spent being able to take those jobs were all supplementing these companies that turn a very large profit. [Diana interned for C Magazine, the owner of the Wilhelmina S2 Model and Talent Agency, and other posts before Bazaar. — Ed]. I think people fail to understand that any work that is done for free supplements that company. A lot of interns in New York — or anywhere that is expensive to live — are being supported by their families financially to take these internships. I don’t really think it clicks for them. The fact is, your parents are supplementing Hearst — or whatever company is — when they’re not paying you.
A lot of people have [also] said, “Why would this girl stay in this job?” “If this is what she was asked to do, why would she be doing this even if she didn’t like it?” I found myself doing these things because I was never told that I would be doing what I ended up doing. [When I was hired] at Bazaar I was not told that I would be managing a bunch of interns. I wasn’t told that I would be the person to return all of the accessories… I just wasn’t told these things. I was literally duped into the job that I ended up doing. Most people would understand that if you begin a job, it would be really difficult to leave that job when you’re in it for the reason you’re highly motivated by: To get a job at the end.
Ed: What gave you the big push to file the suit?
DW: I had been through a lot working there every day, and the things that I saw and experienced I didn’t feel good about. The way I was treated by my supervisor was just deplorable. He directly admitted to me that not only would he not recommend me for a job after the internship, but he would also have to tell the people who would contact him for a reference about me that I didn’t do a very good job and they shouldn’t hire me. He actually admitted to me that he did end up telling some of these places that I interviewed at not to hire me. I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to tell people not to hire this person. The thing that hurt me the most was the fact that I had never worked so hard at a job in my life, and it’s ironic that it didn’t pay a dime to do a job that took so much out of me, physically and emotionally.
Ed: Do you believe that interns are replacing entry-level workers?
DW: Things are very different now if you’re a college student or intern. 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. I think that people should stop and think about saying no to letting that practice continue. The thing is, the more unpaid interns there are, the less paid employees there are. That hurts everyone in the end. It’s basically voting with what you’re willing and not willing to do with your time.
Ed: You’re now also suing Fenton/Fallon, a jewelry company where you had been a public relations intern.
DW: It’s absolutely true. I did work for Fenton/Fallon for a month and a half before my internship started Bazaar. Before then, I was a huge admirer of Dana Lorenz; she was one of my favorite jewelry designers. She [Lorenz] was able to rope in a mass of interns so that we were basically there from morning until evening making the jewelry. I was cutting wires; that’s all I did. In some ways it was a worse experience than Hearst, but it was different. Being an unpaid messenger and being an unpaid jewelry constructer — they’re kind of both utterly manual labor that is — both just pretty humiliating. That lawsuit… it’s not turning into anything the size of Hearst, but she has admitted her wrongdoing.
Ed: What should interns know about the Fenton/Fallon case?
DW: I think anyone who wants to find out more can find everything out because it’s a public record. That is actually not turning into anything big. This was a pretty high turnover case; they reached a conclusion pretty quickly with that. It’s just more for potential internship posts for companies to hire interns to use this as the example of what not to do to avoid someone coming forward and filing a complaint.
I also think what interns can take away from this is to try to research as much as you can about the place where you want to intern. I had absolutely no way to find out what I was walking into when I accepted the internship at Fenton/Fallon. I really, really, definitely wanted to intern for Dana Lorenz and I was completely blindsided. I don’t think that should happen to anyone, especially somebody who took all of their savings, moved to New York, and devoted their entire week to doing this really awful… I don’t know, just like slaving away for somebody and being treated like complete garbage. I really wish that that hadn’t happened to me. By the time I left Fenton/Fallon, there were people coming out for the fall and I just thought it was a horrible disgrace for them to walk into the same trap as I did, which they did because they didn’t know any better. There was no one who came forward to at least put it out there somehow to avoid her—avoid working for her for no pay, at least. Interns should be informed as much as they can.
Ed: Has your experience at Bazaar discouraged you from wanting to work in magazines and media altogether?
DW: The work that I’ve done since last winter has been in media (just as an overarching industry), so I haven’t been deterred from that. The things that I experienced in the fashion industry didn’t make me not want to work in fashion — I still love it — but it did make me really jaded.
Ed: If the Hearst case leads to the elimination of unpaid internships or simply fewer paid opportunities, do you think that will be a victory?
DW: If it’s a for-profit company and you’re doing productive work that would otherwise be paid, I don’t think you should be unpaid for your work when it’s work that could be billed for. I think it will be a victory if employers start to tighten their internship programs or reexamine what they make their interns do. I don’t think [editors] should get away with having their intern walk their dog everyday; that’s not right to me. It’s not a good use of your time and I think everyone’s time should be valued. There should be more oversight and less getting away with very underhanded and sketchy things people have their interns do.
Ed: What message do you have for all interns?
DW: You should always be aware that people should treat you with respect and dignity, even if you’re “just an intern.” I feel like that term, at least when I was in New York, was used as a term for someone that didn’t really matter. The people I interned for would use those words in offense: “Just an intern.” I think that interns should not be afraid to stand up for themselves when someone is asking them to do something inappropriate that does not pertain whatsoever to the internship they signed up for. The internship should be for your benefit and not majority benefit for the employer.
Do you disagree or agree with Diana? Could this really be the demise of the unpaid internship? Join the discussion on Ed’s Facebook and Twitter pages.