Unpaid Interns Not Protected by Employment Law

 


There are definite downsides to an unpaid internship, but college students, and prospective employees, all over the globe hope for the payoff at the end. “This will look great on my resume,” we tell ourselves, “Just think of the connections I am making.”  Connecticut College students are extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to get internships through the CELS office that provides a $3,000 award for students who complete the program; something that definitely makes an unpaid internship more worthwhile. However, being an unpaid intern might be more of a risk than a reward on a basic human rights level.

Besides the inconvenience of not being paid, interns are facing legal obstacles that put their rights at risk.  Employment law in general has a “big hole” in it that fails to protect interns. The bottom line: unpaid interns cannot sue for sexual harassment.  Lihuan Wang learned that the hard way.

As a 22 year-old unpaid intern with Phoenix Satellite Television, Wang came forward with testimony against the bureau chief of the company’s station in Washington D.C.  She experienced unwanted verbal and physical advances from the executive.  After she rejected the advances and removed herself from the dangerous situation, the executive “no longer expressed interest in permanently hiring her.” Because the company did not pay her, she was not technically an employee. A federal district court in New York City ruled that the New York Human Rights Law does not apply to unpaid interns because they are not "real" employees.

There is no question that having an internship is important for future career prospects, and the culture of unpaid internships is under scrutiny. Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy  explains, "“Over 20 lawsuits, a major precedent from a federal judge, extensive press coverage, changing policies at companies and colleges, as well as new campaigns led by young people — all of these are starting to alter dramatically the culture of unpaid work and the internship economy." The New York Times reports thay pay is an important indicator of the value of an internship to graduate job seekers. A 2011 survey found that 61% of students who worked in a paid internship were offered a job when they graduated, compared with 38% of students who took an unpaid position.

At the moment, Oregon is the only state that has passed a law that recognizes interns, paid or not, to be protected by standards of harassment. Connecticut College students have been, and will be, at internships across the countries with small businesses and large corporations. As in any situation, it is important for students to be aware of company policy. 

For more information about sexual harassment or sexual assault policy, visit the Think S.A.F.E. Project page and like their page for updates.