Summary:

In a lawsuit that could shake the publishing industry, a Brooklyn woman is claiming Hearst Corporation owes wages to her and others who inte…

Oliver Twist
photo: Corbis / Guy Ferrandis / Tristar Pictures

In a lawsuit that could shake the publishing industry, a Brooklyn woman is claiming Hearst Corporation owes wages to her and others who interned at Harper’s Bazaar and other magazines since February of 2006.

In a complaint filed in Manhattan federal court, Xuedan Wang says she was not paid for working 40-55 hours per week during 2011.

The class action suit says Hearst, whose publications include Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping, violated federal and New York state minimum wage, overtime and record keeping laws. It seeks millions in compensation for interns across the country and for a subset of people who worked in New York.

Elizabeth Wagoner, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an interview that the case is the first of its kind to involve “interns” but that there are many successful precedents involving minimum wage violations and jobs in which workers were paid only with tips.

The case poses philosophic and economic challenges not just for the publishing industry but for an overall economy in which more and more businesses are using interns.

On one hand, internships can provide valuable experience and connections that lead young people into the workforce. But on the other, employers have come to regard internships as a pool of free labor that can be tapped with no reciprocal obligations to provide a job.

This reality means that internships can go not to the most talented candidates but to those with the financial means to treat them as a lifestyle choice.

Internships are widespread in the publishing business. The New York Times (NYSE: NYT), which regularly warns that internships can be exploitative, uses students for unpaid research work (I interned as a fact-checker in 2010, providing French translation and GDP calculations for its columnists. I didn’t receive a salary, a lunch or, some days, even a greeting).

In the case of Hearst, its practices may be no better or worse than the dozens of other companies that use interns. The publisher may simply have had the bad luck to have become a test case for the legal parameters of America’s internship economy.

Hearst is likely in for a fight as the lead plaintiff is represented by Outten & Golden, a firm experienced in employment-related class action. The firm paid to publicize the case on newswires this afternoon.

Wagoner said Hearst has yet to be served with the complaint. The company did not immediately return calls for comment.

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