Is This Really the End of Unpaid Internships?

Many of us got a little twinge of glee on reading the story of Diana Wang, the former Harper's Bazaar intern who sued The Hearst Corporation for unpaid wages.

Internships are seen as the only path to permanent employment in many industries. Most notoriously, media giants like Hearst and Conde Nast depend on interns for everything from gofer work like making coffee and copies to personal assistant duties like managing editors' schedules and picking up their dry cleaning.

The problem is that internships were never intended to replace actual, permanent positions -- nor were they meant to relieve full-time employees of the burden of brewing their own java. Legally, an internship must:

1. Be for the benefit of the intern, not the employer.

2. Provide training, similar to that provided by an educational institution.

3. Not give an immediate advantage to the employer. In fact, the training the intern receives can actually impede the day-to-day activities of the company, to the benefit of the intern.

4. Not replace the duties of a regular employee. (In other words, no fair hiring an unpaid intern instead of an editorial assistant or other trainee.)

5. Be understood to offer no guarantee of employment after the conclusion of the internship.

By this criteria, at least by her account, Wang could have a case. She claims that her duties often extended from morning til 10 p.m., with few breaks, and no lunch until 4 p.m. She also says she supervised eight other interns and spent much of her day ferrying heavy bags around Manhattan.

Hearst issued a statement in lieu of an official response to Wang's allegations: "The internship programs at each of our magazines are designed to enhance the educational experience of students who are receiving academic credit for their participation, and are otherwise fully in compliance with applicable laws. We intend to vigorously defend this matter."

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(Photo Credit: Håkan Dahlström/Flickr)

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