Unpaid workers can’t sue for harassment, judge says
Most interns can’t expect the luxury of being paid, but one would think they could at least expect protection from sexual harassment in the workplace.
This was not the case, however, in a recent U.S. District Court case in New York, where a judge ruled that an unpaid intern did not have the same rights as a paid employee, and thus had no grounds to sue her boss for sexual harassment.
Lihuan Wang, an unpaid intern at Phoenix Satellite Television, filed a suit against her boss after he groped her and tried to kiss her.
Wang’s boss had previously spoken with Wang about hiring her after her internship ended. After she declined his sexual advances, she was not offered a job.
According to a New York Daily News article, Judge Kevin Castel wrote that “Protection of employees does not extend to unpaid interns.”
This court ruling is absolutely unacceptable and leads to the potential to exploit interns even more than they currently are.
Legislation needs to be passed giving unpaid interns more rights and protection.
According to Derek Thomson, The Atlantic’s business editor who spoke on an NPR radio spot, there is little federal law that guards an unpaid intern’s rights. Thomson added that Oregon is the only state in the Union that has laws that protect unpaid interns from sexual harassment in the workplace.
The whole point of labor laws is to protect those susceptible to exploitation.
Interns are typically young and desperate for work experience. Students are told in college that an internship is the key to getting a job post-graduation. It is too easy to take advantage of an intern, just as it once was too easy to take advantage of minors in the work place.
Sexual harassment under federal law asserts that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination. Not allowing an unpaid intern to sue for sexual harassment seems to inherently allow discrimination in the workplace. One could essentially imagine the scenario of, “if you don’t sleep with me, you don’t get the job after your internship” to occur, thus discriminating if the intern does not comply.
The U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division qualifies an unpaid internship as something “similar to training which would be given in an educational environment” and that the internship is for the benefit of the intern. The criteria states, “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”
Since the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division deems an internship something that should be educational, there should be similar laws regarding sexual harassment as there are in the classroom.
Thomson said that if an unpaid intern is in college and taking the internship for college credit, then the intern is technically considered an employee and could sue for sexual harassment. But as soon as the intern graduates, those rights disappear.
This stark disparity in the law shows a lack of legislation regarding internships in general. There should be no difference in rights between those who are in college and those who graduated. The lack of cohesion shows a hole in the law.
The ruling sends the message that young professionals seeking job experience are disposable and have fewer rights just because they’re working for free.