Don’t Touch Me or I’ll Sue: Another Huge Win for Unpaid Interns

by Tania V. Parker

Internships are gaining increasing recognition for their role in the current job market. While employers and the judicial system are trying to figure out whether or not interns can be classified as employees, some state legislatures have taken a bold step by granting unpaid interns some of the statutory protections offered to employees. Without these specific exceptions, unpaid interns are not granted any of the workplace protections paid employees are given.[1]

Recently, an increasing amount of state legislatures have granted unpaid interns protections from sexual harassment in the workplace. The change in legislation comes about as a response to Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television U.S., Inc.[2] The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that because the plaintiff was an unpaid intern at the time of the alleged incident, she could not successfully bring a claim under New York State or New York City Human Rights Laws.[3] Despite having to encounter unwanted sexual advances and retaliation by her supervisor, Lihuan Wang’s claims were rebuffed and refuted by the district court.[4] The district court’s ruling is a reflection of a system where interns are neither considered nor treated as equals in the workforce.

Inspired by the disservice faced by Ms. Wang and similarly situated unpaid interns, New York State Senator Liz Krueger proposed extending sexual harassment protection to unpaid interns.[5] State Senator Krueger’s proposal makes New York one of the first states to include unpaid interns in its sexual harassment laws.[6] New York joins Oregon, Illinois, California, Michigan, and Washington D.C. as the only states and jurisdictions with passed legislation to protect unpaid interns from sexual harassment.[7] Currently, Connecticut has proposed legislation to protect unpaid interns from sexual harassment.[8] These new laws are designed to circumvent the limitations under Title VII which provide that it is unlawful to harass a job applicant or employee.[9] Interpretations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) have held that unpaid interns are not deemed to be employees.[10]

These legal proposals and amendments are implemented to give unpaid interns a voice and an opportunity to state their concerns and mistreatment. The amended laws are designed to give mistreated interns the necessary options to hold their employers and supervisors accountable without fear of retaliation.[11] Without these protections, interns would be “fair game” for sexual harassment.[12] However, many believe that interns are the “least powerful” members of the company and as a result are less likely to report inappropriate actions.[13] Many interns might not want to ruin future job prospects by filing a complaint against their employer.[14] As Lihuan Wang notes, interns are “eager to please, so they’re willing to put up with a lot more unreasonable stuff during their internship.”[15]

Without the protections given to employees, interns must fend for themselves in the workplace in every possible way. Workers’ employment status should not determine whether or not they would receive protection to prevent having their civil rights violated. Without these proposed amendments to legislation, interns would be forced to face these brutal and demeaning actions without any support or a form of a remedy. As more companies are utilizing the work of unpaid interns, corresponding local governments should follow suit by enacting such legislation in order to truly protect their workforce.

[1] Aaron Taube, Some States Are Finally Making it Illegal to Sexually Harass Unpaid Interns, Business Insider, (Oct. 6, 2014, 3:20 PM), http://www.businessinsider.com/states-banning-sexual-harassment-of-unpaid-interns-2014-10.

[2] 976 F. Supp. 2d 527 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).

[3] Id. at 528.

[4] Id. at 539.

[5] Taube, supra note 1.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.; Zach Schonfeld, The Fight to Protect Unpaid Interns Against Sexual Harassment, Newsweek, (Mar. 20, 2014, 2:43 PM), http://www.newsweek.com/fight-protect-unpaid-interns-against-sexual-harassment-232567.

[8] Noah Kim, Bill Seeks to Protect Unpaid Interns in Connecticut from Sexual Harassment, Yale Daily News, (Feb. 25, 2015), http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2015/02/25/bill-seeks-to-protect-unpaid-interns-from-sexual-harassment/.

[9] Sexual Harassment, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, (Mar. 10, 2015, 11:33 PM), http://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/sexual_harassment.cfm.

[10] See 42 U.S.C. § 203(5) (2014); Wang v. Hearst Corp., 293 F.R.D. 489 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).

[11] Legislature Approves Plan to Extend Workplace Protections to Unpaid Interns, Oregon Live, (June 4, 2013, 6:51 PM), http://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/06/legislature_approves_plan_to_e.html.

[12] Schonfeld, supra note 7.

[13] Kim, supra note 8.

[14] Id.

[15] Schonfeld, supra note 7.

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