In nearly every city and state across the country, unpaid interns aren’t protected from sexual harassment on the job. Since they aren’t paid, they aren’t considered to be employees under the Civil Rights Act.
But for unpaid interns in New York City, that situation has now changed. On Wednesday, the city council passed a bill that defines an intern as an employee “without regard to whether the employer pays them a salary or wage.” That means they will now be protected against sexual harassment and discrimination based on race, religion, and sexual orientation.
City council member Gale Brewer decided to propose the legislation after former intern Lihuan Wang’s sexual harassment suit against her boss at Phoenix Satellite Television U.S. was thrown out. The judge ruled that she couldn’t bring a claim because she wasn’t a paid employee.
Similar cases have sparked similar action. In Washington, D.C., after a college student filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the Center for Integrative Body Therapies, a judge ruled that she didn’t have grounds because she didn’t get any payment. That inspired a city councilor to propose a bill to extend the city’s Human Rights Act to protect unpaid interns, which passed in 2009. The state of Oregon has also passed legislation. A bill was also introduced in California in January, but it is still in committee. Some universities have tried to protect students who take unpaid internships by requiring that employers follow sexual harassment policies.
But in nearly every other city and state, unpaid interns can be sexually harassed or discriminated against without recourse. And given how much interns may rely on favorable recommendations and connections to get ahead and find paying work, many may still feel afraid of coming forward.
Unpaid interns have not just been fighting for employment rights, but also the right to be paid in the first place. Last summer, a Federal District Court Judge in Manhattan ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures had violated minimum wage laws by not paying inters working on the movie Black Swan. More than a dozen other cases have been brought along the same lines against a variety of employers.