Recently, American fashion designers and former child actresses Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have moved to settle a lawsuit brought by a former intern. In September 2015, Shahista Lalani filed suit against the the sisters, known collectively as the Olsen twins, in New York Supreme Court, alleging that she worked 50-hour weeks without pay or college credit. Ms. Lalani filed a “proposed class action to join other unpaid interns” who had worked for the Olsen twins. She requested the court grant damages, minimum wage, and overtime. In 2012, Ms. Lalani worked for the clothing line “The Row,” a high-end fashion line owned by the Olsen twins.
Ms. Lalani claimed that the interns performed the same tasks as full-time employees, which included cleaning, photocopying, sewing, and carrying “50 pound boxes in 100 degree weather.” Ms. Lalani claimed that she was hospitalized for dehydration as a result of performing her job duties. According to New York Labor Law, misclassifying entry level employees as minimum wage-exempt interns is a violation. Ms. Lalani alleged the company had done just that. According to Ms. Lalani, the company failed to administer work to the interns that provided academic benefit and enhanced their skill set. Both New York State and federal employment law requires that interns be provided with work that has academic benefit.
According to recent court filings, the Olsen twins agreed to settle the case and pay $140,000 to a class of 185 interns. Each intern will receive approximately $530 each and the remaining payout will go to their lawyers if the settlement is approved by the New York Supreme Court. The settlement includes interns who worked at the company since 2009.
Recently, it has become common for interns to file lawsuits against companies for unpaid work. In 2014, two former Condé Nast interns filed suit against the company for unpaid wages. The company settled the class-action lawsuit by agreeing to pay $5.8 million. In 2012, a Harper’s Bazaar intern filed a class-action lawsuit against the magazine. Within the past couple years, interns have filed cases against major brand-name fashion companies including Burberry, Marc Jacobs, and Oscar de la Renta, among others.
Today, many view internships as steppingstones into the workforce and with the lack of job openings on the market, internships have become more prevalent. In recent years, both federal and state regulators have taken substantial efforts to crack down on employers who fail to compensate their interns properly. If an employer hires someone as an unpaid intern and fails to meet the federal legal criteria for the position he or she may be in violation of federal and state employment laws. If you are an unpaid intern and believe you are owed wages, contact an experienced New York employment attorney who will work to ensure that your legal rights are protected. Call Steven Mitchell Sack at (917) 371-8000 or email him at sms@StevenSack.com.