Rachel Moskowitz, a senior at Boston University, caught a bus down to New York last Wednesday for an event that could make or break her career: Fashion Week. Moskowitz's ticket to the weeklong industry showcase was an internship backstage with the womenswear designer Rebecca Taylor. The public relations major planned seating charts, stuffed gift bags and steamed clothes in preparation for the fashion show on Friday.
"I actually got to watch the show -- I didn't have to work once it started," Moskowitz said. "And to be able to say you worked fashion week is so cool."
Moskowitz is one of hundreds of unpaid workers behind the scene at New York Fashion Week, running through Thursday all over Manhattan. She's trading long hours of manual and clerical labor for the chance to be in the thick of glamour. In the summer months, Moskowitz and her fellow interns will fill the offices of magazines, PR firms and production companies, hoping that their hard work will eventually lead to coveted fashion jobs.
Yet the legality of such internships has come under scrutiny. On February 1, Xuedan "Diana" Wang, a former Harper's Bazaar intern, filed a lawsuit against publishing behemoth Hearst Corporation. The class action, a first for the fashion industry, seeks damages for Wang's five months of unpaid labor in the magazine's accessories department. Two new interns joined the case last week, according to Wang's attorney Elizabeth Wagoner.
"We were completely overworked," Wang, a 28 year old Ohio native, told The Huffington Post in an interview. "It was an outrageous burden for a bunch of interns."
At Harper's Bazaar, Wang worked 40 to 55 hours a week as a "head intern," supervising eight other unpaid workers as they carried bags of clothes to and from PR firms, effectively serving as a messenger service for the magazine.
Wang believes that her experience at Harper's Bazaar wasn't an internship, but a job that deserved compensation. She claims that the work did not comply with the U.S. Department of Labor's guidelines for internships.
Hearst, meanwhile, maintains that Wang's internship was perfectly legal. "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," a company spokeswoman said in a statement. "We intend to vigorously defend this matter."
Wang, who had already graduated from Ohio State when she began the internship, received course credit by contacting the office of continuing studies and paying around $700 for two additional credit hours to be added to her transcript.
Despite the credit hours, Wang maintains that the internship was the "very opposite of any kind of educational experience."
'GET ANOTHER INTERNSHIP'
The Department of Labor's guidelines for internships at for-profit companies, issued in April 2010, were intended to rein in the expanding intern workforce, currently beyond the reach of other labor laws. The guidelines have yet to be referenced in court, and in Wang's case, they stand to influence any judicial decision on whether she should in fact receive compensation for her five months at Harper's Bazaar.
Internships, according to the guidelines, must be similar to "educational" training, must provide no "immediate advantage" to employers and must not displace regular salaried employees. If internships fail to meet these requirements, they are considered work, and subject to regulations like minimum wage.
According to Wang, her internship at Harper's Bazaar consisted primarily of sending other unpaid interns to pick up bags of clothes from PR firms. "It was all very menial," she said. "We were barely supervised."
The work environment was harried and fast-paced. As "head intern," Wang worked long hours, waiting for interns to return so she could organize hundreds of items of clothing and check them in to the magazine's closet. If something went wrong or came in late, Wang took the blame.
"The other interns took the subway, for the most part," Wang said, adding that they paid their own fare. "Sometimes they had so many bags that they could barely walk on the sidewalk."
Wang, who hails from a small town in Southwestern Ohio, graduated in 2010 with a degree in strategic communication. After saving up money by working on her own for a year, she moved to to New York to start her career in fashion. "It was my childhood dream," she said. "Harper's Bazaar was my favorite magazine growing up."
When her internship ended in December, Wang hoped to receive a letter of recommendation from her employer that would lead to a paying job. Her supervisor, the Senior Accessories Editor for the magazine, declined to write a letter, bringing up mistakes Wang had made in giving instructions to other interns.
"It was a very stressful job," Wang said in her defense. "There was always a shortage of labor ... I thought about quitting but I wanted to see it through to the end because I was desperate for that recommendation."
"[My supervisor's] advice was to get another internship," Wang said. 'I had blown through thousands providing a service to this magazine ... It was devastating."
Wang's supervisor did not return a request for comment for this article.
Wang's experience was not unique -- fashion internships, like those in some other industries, regularly require interns to make deliveries, do clerical work and stay long hours.
Companies hope that course credit from schools will stand as acceptable proof that the internships are "educational," and that they can therefore continue to offer them without pay under Department of Labor guidelines.
For some interns still in school, this works out well: Moskowitz, for example, saved $8,000 on tuition by using her summer internship at Rebecca Taylor toward graduation requirements. Others, like Wang, are forced to shell out money themselves just to receive letters of credit.
It remains to be seen whether a letter of credit will stand as proof that an internship is "educational" in court. Wang's case is only the second case to deal explicitly with unpaid internships or reference the Department of Labor's guidelines. The first, filed in late 2011 against Fox Searchlight by a former intern, also uses Outten & Golden LLP, Wang's lawyers, as representation.
Wang first considered suing a few weeks after her internship ended, when she read about the Fox Searchlight case on the Internet. That led her to Department of Labor's guidelines.
"As soon as I read [the guidelines] I knew immediately that what they had us doing wasn't appropriate," she said.
'HARD TO TURN THEM AWAY'
The fashion world is taking a "wait and see" approach to the lawsuit, according to Susan Scafidi, founder of the Fashion Law Institute and professor at Fordham University. "No one is changing their programs just yet as that would be an advance admission of guilt," she said. "But there is some quiet attention to exactly what kind of work interns are doing."
Many interns, like Moskowitz, are thrilled to get professional experience and to be part of the fashion world, no matter if the work is difficult. "It gives you a great name to put on your resume," said Moskowitz. "Internships are hard. You have to be dedicated ... In my opinion, when you sign up, you know what you're getting into."
Internships have long been a part of the fashion world, according to Scafidi, and are viewed as important vocational training by members of the industry. "Fashion has always been place where people can learn on the job," she said. "There's an effort to make sure interns get a valuable experience."
Only recently, in the current bleak job market, have internships begun to generate debate. With only 54 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds currently employed, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, internships are replacing entry level jobs.
Many recent grads are now willing to take any work experience, paid or otherwise. Aliza Bogner, vice president of Human Resources at Alison Brod, a fashion PR firm, says that her company received more than 50 emails this year from people offering to volunteer at fashion week, many of them college grads.
"We didn't take any of them," said Bogner. "Ever since we heard about the new labor laws, we don't accept interns without course credit."
Bogner questions whether other PR firms are as careful about the guidelines. "When you have people who graduated college and are begging to work for free, and they need the experience on their resumes, it's hard to turn them away," she said.
The proliferation of internships also raises a class issue -- for the most part, only children with wealthy parents can afford to spend much of their early twenties working unpaid jobs.
Wang acknowledges that money played a big role in her decision to pursue legal action. "All of this wouldn't have bothered me so much if I had had more money," she said. "If I could just do another internship so flippantly like [my supervisor] told me to, it would be fine."
Susan Scafidi thinks that Wang and her lawyers' biggest challenge will be getting more interns to come forward and join the class action suit. Interns who can afford to work for free have little incentive to sue and risk being blacklisted for jobs.
As they stand, the Department of Labor's guidelines are largely up to interns to enforce. With no legal body currently investigating company practices, interns must come forward and speak about violations for any changes to occur.
"In terms of workplace abuses, I don't know if interns are high on the Department of Labor's list," Scafidi said.
Wang herself acknowledges that she has probably botched all chances of a fashion career. Still, she hopes that the high-profile nature of her case will help shift the climate of the industry for other interns.
"There are so many people like me who want to be a part [of this industry] so badly," she said. "They deserve a fair chance."
Have you worked as an unpaid intern? Tell us about your experience by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
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