Objection! The defendants are too fashionable!
You might have heard that Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are getting sued. And not by John Stamos on grounds of career jealousy. A former intern who worked for their fashion label, The Row, filed a class action lawsuit saying that she was was unlawfully not paid.
What's up with that? Should she have been paid? Are unpaid internships legal? Will articles ever respect Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen's desire not to be referred to as the "Olsen twins"? Let's investigate.
The intern who started the lawsuit, Shahista Lalani, says she worked 50 hours a week from May to September 2012. According to the New York Daily News, her work included "inputting data into spreadsheets, making tech sheets, running personal errands for paid employees, organizing materials, cleaning, photocopying and sewing." Lalani says she should have been paid at least a minimum wage.
Mary-Kate and Ashley very stylishly disagree. A spokesperson for their company, Dualstar, released a statement that I like to imagine being read aloud in a tired, sighing voice:
"As an initial matter, Dualstar is an organization that is committed to treating all individuals fairly and in accordance with all applicable laws. The allegations in the complaint filed against Dualstar are groundless, and Dualstar will vigorously defend itself against plaintiff’s claims in court, not before the media. Dualstar is confident that once the true facts of this case are revealed, the lawsuit will be dismissed in its entirety."
Well what does the law say? A lot of conflicting things. Typical judges, am I right? Make up your mind already, justices. Not all of our jobs give us the luxury of being so wishy-washy. Can you imagine what would happen if I constantly changed my stance on who I think should be in Taylor Swift's squad?
The issue of unpaid internships first became a "hot topic," legally speaking, when two interns from the movie Black Swan sued Fox. In 2013, a judge ruled in the interns' favor and laid out strict criteria (which match the Department of Labor's rules) for who can be considered an unpaid intern. The New York Times explains:
Those rules say unpaid internships should not be to the immediate advantage of the employer, the work must be similar to vocational training given in an educational environment, the experience must be for the benefit of the intern and the intern’s work must not displace that of regular employees.
So basically, you can only be an unpaid intern if you're actually learning something and you're not doing work that an employee would otherwise do. Cool, let's get paid! As 'N Sync once famously sang, "Money money money money."
But wait. Don't cash in your hundreds of dollars yet. A different judge, who's more important, just vacated the decision from Sad Interns v. Natalie Portman's Id Ballerina. Just last month, a federal appeals court (which is of course, a very serious, prestigious court) set out a looser criteria for who can be an unpaid intern. The new ruling says that employee status depends on a "primary beneficiary test." This means, according to The New York Times, that "the worker can be considered an employee only if the employer benefits more from the relationship than the intern."
So was your internship better for you, or for the huge movie studio that's getting free short-term Xerox labor? Figure it out, because that's how a court would decide if it's legal.
Meanwhile, since the first Black Swan case, many huge companies have had to settle with their own spunky suing gangs of unpaid interns—Elite Model Management for $450,000, Condé Nast for $5.8 million, NBC Universal for $6.4 million, and Viacom for $7.2 million. (Disclosure: I was an unpaid intern at several of the aforementioned companies, and I don't think I turned in the right forms to get any money.)
I didn't go to law school (can you believe that?), but it seems pretty obvious that interns do actual work deserving of pay, and that industries shouldn't continue to shut out entry-level applicants who need to actually make money at their jobs. So what did we learn here? Unpaid internships are of questionable legality, and we should all get in touch with our sensual Black Swan sides to access our full creative potential.
Oh, and the Olsens will probably end up settling unless they can show that just being near them benefited the intern more than inputting data and making tech sheets benefited Dualstar.