Lawyer: 4 — not 3,000 — interns have joined class action suit against Hearst

When I aggregated Kayleen Schaefer’s New York magazine piece about a former unpaid intern at Harper’s Bazaar whose lawsuit against Hearst has become a class-action suit, I incorrectly interpreted this passage to mean 3,000 interns had joined the suit:

The lawsuit, which accuses the company of violating federal and state labor laws, has since become a class-action one — including about 3,000 former Hearst interns — and may be decided as soon as early 2013.

I should have waited till I got Rachel Bien on the phone. (We corrected our original story.)

“I think there are potentially 3,000 people who might join,” Bien says. “The court has approved a notice to be sent out. We’re in the process of finalizing a few details of notifying people, and there are 3,000 potential people who could join.”

Bien is an attorney at Outten & Golden, the law firm representing Wang. She’s also married to my friend Andy Greenwald, who, as it happens, was an unpaid intern and later a paid colleague at Spin when I worked there in the late ’90s.

In an email, Schaefer says:

“including about 3,000 former Hearst interns” meant that that’s how many are eligible, but it’s my understanding from the law firm that all of those interns are already certified as a class—they don’t have to do anything to join.

That’s not quite right, Bien says: Anyone interested in joining the case, which three former interns have already done, has to fill out the notice Outten & Golden will send out. The 3,000 figure, Bien says, derives from information the firm got from Hearst that the publisher engaged about 1,000 interns a year across its properties, multiplied by three years, which conforms to the statute of limitations set down by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. (New York State, Bien notes, limits actions to the previous six years.)

The Hearst case will be of enormous interest to publishers, many of which have used unpaid internships for years. The Labor Department issued guidance in April 2010 to for-profit companies “essentially telling them that it’s gonna be a rare circumstance at a for-profit company that they can get away with not paying interns,” Bien says.

Wang also filed a lawsuit against jeweler Fenton Fallon. Bien says that case is in the process of being settled.

As of July 2010, Fox Entertainment Group pays all its interns $8 an hour, Eriq Gardner reported last month. Fox News offers one unpaid internship program, FNCU, and two paid ones: Junior Reporters and the Ailes Apprentice Program. All of Time Inc.’s magazine internships are paid, Time Inc. spokesperson Summer Wilkie says. (I haven’t heard back from Conde Nast yet.)

In an email statement, Hearst VP of Corporate Communications Paul Luthringer says:

The plaintiff in this case, Xuedan Wang, misrepresented that she was a student, when in fact, she was not. The facts will show that this case is without merit. We will defend our programs which are soundly within the law and offer young people an up-close view of the magazine business.

Students from all backgrounds have studied in dozens of different internship programs at Hearst Magazines 19 titles, learning varied aspects of the magazine industry from the best editors and publishers in the business. Over 100 colleges and universities have awarded credit to our interns. Many of our student interns have gotten the experience necessary to find jobs after graduation either at Hearst Magazines or other companies.

“Just because a school awards credit,” Bien says, “doesn’t mean that the internship is educational or is exempt from the requirements of the wage and hour laws.”

She says there are instances in which Hearst has encouraged interns to seek college credit from another institution if their school doesn’t offer it. But schools rarely complain about the low value many interns get from their placements because their associations with prestigious brands are selling points to potential students.

In 2009, Gawker published a memo purportedly from Harper’s Bazaar, which instructed staffers to forgo engaging courier services and “use your interns to do Manhattan runs (using the subway).” Schaefer described Wang’s work in her piece:

Wang’s job at Bazaar, which she says she did five days a week and from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., was to track the thousands of purses, shoes, and pieces of jewelry lent to the magazine for photo shoots. She managed as many as eight other interns, sending them on 30 to 40 errands a day, and helping them file expense reports. She answered the accessories director’s phone, writing the caller’s name and holding it up, so her boss could decide whether or not to take the call. This is standard unpaid work in the fashion industry — and critical to its operations.

Just because work is menial doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t pay for it, Bien says. She doesn’t dispute that some benefits accrue to people who perform unpaid internships — contacts, behind-the-scenes know-how, chances at other jobs. But “someone who is an entry-level worker,” Bien says, “they probably get a lot out of that work. … What I hope to convince the judge of is: The fact that interns get some benefit from the internship doesn’t mean the company doesn’t have to pay them for work that provides an advantage to the company.”

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