Are Harassment Protections for Unpaid Interns on the Horizon?
March 26, 2014
Lihuan Wang was working for Phoenix Satellite Television when her supervisor allegedly invited her to his hotel room, put his arms around her, forcibly grabbed her buttocks and kissed her. Wang sued for sexual harassment, however a New York court dismissed her case. The reason for the dismissal? Wang was an unpaid intern and therefore had no protections under federal or state law against sexual harassment.
Many companies have been sued in recent years for their treatment of unpaid interns. The first wave of lawsuits centered around whether certain unpaid interns should have been instead classified as employees, and as such paid a minimum wage. The focus of unpaid intern issues has started now to shift to providing discrimination and harassment protections, as the law would for any employee.
Why Interns Need Protection
First and foremost, no one should have to be subjected to sexual harassment. Inappropriate comments, leering, jokes, or touching create a hostile work environment and therefore should never be allowed in the workplace. Furthermore, unpaid interns may be even more susceptible to harassing behaviors, especially from supervisors.
Unpaid interns are working for free to build experience, trying to get a foot in the door for the start of their career, and often hoping to get an offer for full-time employment after they graduate. Therefore, unpaid interns are more eager to please and less likely to confront someone or complain of sexual harassing behaviors, especially from supervisors with hiring power. This makes unpaid interns particularly vulnerable in the workplace.
New California Bill
Last year, Oregon became the first state to pass a law protecting unpaid interns from unlawful harassment and discrimination, and Washington, D.C. recently followed suit. Following the Wang case out of New York, California Assemblymember Nancy Skinner introduced Assembly Bill 1443, which would amend the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) to provide unpaid interns with all of the same protections as paid employees.
The protections would include discrimination, harassment, or retaliation based on any of the following factors:
Sex and sexual orientation
Gender identity and expression
Mental or physical disability
Military or veteran status
Any unpaid intern who experiences any such unlawful discrimination, harassment, or retaliation may seek legal recourse against the company. The Bill is currently in committee and we will keep track of its progress.
According to a recent survey published by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), nearly 48 percent of internships accepted by college seniors in 2013 were unpaid. Though numbers show that unpaid internships do not provide a greater chance of employment offer than students with no work experience, many students continue to hope that an unpaid internship will help improve their opportunities. These students often work just as hard as paid interns and employees, and they deserve the full employment protections under the law as paid workers.
If you have any questions or concerns regarding unpaid internships or sexual harassment, contact the Pershing Square Law Firm for assistance today.