They’ve been carefully curating their presence in the media since transitioning from child actors to billionaire moguls; making sure their reputation is highly respected, picture perfect (say “prune!”) and tabloid scandal-free.
That is…until now.
Roughly 40 interns, both past and present, are bringing a class-action lawsuit against the 29-year-old designers’ holding company, Dualstar Entertainment Group, which consists of critically acclaimed fashion labels like The Row and Elizabeth & James.
In the suit, lead plaintiff Shahista Lalani claims she was overworked and treated poorly while working under The Row’s head technical designer for five months in 2012—all without pay. Others allegedly received no pay or school credit.
According to court papers, the demands included “inputting data into spreadsheets, making tech sheets, running personal errands for paid employees, organizing materials, photocopying, sewing, pattern cutting, among other related duties.”
Sounds pretty normal for an intern, right?
Well, not when you’re putting in over 50 hours a week and are hospitalized due to dehydration, as Lalani claims.
“I was doing the work of three interns. I was talking to [the head technical designer] all day, all night. E-mails at nighttime for the next day, like 10 p.m. at night,” Lalani told the New York Post. “You’re like an employee, except you’re not getting paid. They’re kind of mean to you. Other interns have cried. I’d see a lot of kids crying doing coffee runs, photocopying stuff.”
The fashion world in general has a reputation for being highly demanding of entry-level employees and interns, and not so rewarding financially.
But after a slew of major lawsuits, it has become risky business for high-profile companies to abuse their powers over interns.
In 2010, Eric Glatt, who had scored a production internship for the blockbuster film Black Swan, filed a historical lawsuit against the film’s distributer Fox Searchlight for not following the six federal legal criteria to satisfy the classification as an unpaid internship.
According to The New York Times, that means “the internship should be similar to the training given in a vocational school or academic institution, that the intern does not displace regular paid workers and that the employer ‘derives no immediate advances’ from the intern’s activities—in other words, it’s largely a benevolent contribution to the intern.”
“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” Nancy J. Leppink, the then-acting director of the Labor Department’s wage and hour division, told the Times.
A judge ruled in Glatt’s favor, claiming Fox Searchlight was his legal employer and opened up a flood of future suits against Sony, Warner Bros. and Viacom by former interns.
A former intern for the Charlie Rose show followed suit two years later. PBS was ordered to pay $110,000 in back payment to all eligible interns. Similar claims happened at Atlantic Records, Gawker, Fox Soccer Channel, and Warner Music Group.
And in 2013, Lauren Ballinger and Matthew Leib, two former interns from W Magazine and The New Yorker respectively, sued Condé Nast for failing to pay them minimum wage.
The media group had shelled out less than $1 an hour for their services and the two asked that it be approved as a class-action suit, which it did.
Condé Nast was forced to pay a whopping $5.9 million and subsequently shuttered its internship group altogether.
Dualstar is “not aware” of the lawsuit, according to a spokesperson for the company, and no other details have been released.
The class-action suit is claiming the interns should have been paid at least minimum wage, plus overtime, especially since they were receiving no academic or vocational credit. The suit does not concern the Olsens directly.
“They’re really nice people,” Lalani said. “They were never mean to anyone. They’re business people.”