Shipping thousand-dollar hats from New York City to London. Shuttling heavy bags around Manhattan. Skipping lunch. Working 55-hour weeks. And doing it all for free.
"It was disgusting," says Diana Wang, 28, of her unpaid labor at Harper's Bazaar magazine. It was also potentially illegal.
Today an estimated one-third to one-half of the U.S.'s 1.5 million internships are without pay, a trend that has only accelerated since the 2008 financial crisis. Employers contend that they're paying interns with experience, which can be more valuable than cash, especially in tough-to-break-into fields such as media, fashion and entertainment. But if unpaid interns are working jobs--no matter how menial--that would otherwise go to entry-level employees, federal law mandates compensation.
The Fair Labor Standards Act isn't new; it's been around since 1938. But in recent months, it has received unprecedented attention, thanks to a trio of class actions led by frustrated ex-interns. Wang, Eric Glatt and Alex Footman, and Lucy Bickerton are demanding wages from Hearst (the owner of Harper's Bazaar), Fox Searchlight and PBS, respectively, for being overworked as unpaid interns. (All three firms declined TIME's interview requests but have publicly denied any wrongdoing.)
"They were counting on the fact that nobody would sue, particularly kids who are just out of school," says Glatt, who took his Fox internship at age 40. "This culture of expecting free labor if you slap the title 'intern' on it has become so pervasive that people don't question whether it's ethically wrong or legally acceptable."
That's starting to change. In response to these lawsuits as well as to advocacy work by the Economic Policy Institute, the U.S. Department of Labor has ramped up efforts to educate unpaid interns about their rights. It has also encouraged them to speak out, as opposed to the norm of "keeping your mouth shut and being thankful for anything that comes your way," as Bickerton, who is suing PBS's The Charlie Rose Show, put it.
Meanwhile, some companies are pre-emptively improving their internship programs. Magazine publisher Cond Nast, for example, used to offer unpaid internships without work-hour limits. Now it pays a stipend of $550 per internship, pairs interns with a mentor and sends them home by 7 p.m. at the latest. Atlantic Media, publisher of the Atlantic, established similar guidelines. Even overseas, Stella McCartney--which last year was one of 102 U.K.-based fashion houses to receive an unpaid-labor warning from the British government--has vowed to pay all interns. (Time Inc.'s policy is to pay interns, though some exceptions may be made, for example, when a student receives academic credit.) "We're at the very early stages of a backlash against unpaid internships," says Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. "The phenomenon has gone off the rails."
That's good news for the ex-interns, who Camille Olson, a labor-law attorney at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, says could indeed win their suits, which are still in the early stages of litigation. And fewer unpaid internships could even mean more entry-level jobs for 20-to-24-year-olds, whose unemployment rate in the U.S. hit 13.2% last month.