Unpaid interns aren’t legally protected from sexual harassment in the workplace because they don’t get paid. As ProPublica explains, without pay, interns aren’t considered “employees” under the Civil Rights Act, although company policies and state and local laws could protect them.
One woman who took an unpaid internship in Washington, DC was sexually harassed, so she filed a lawsuit. But it was ultimately dismissed because she wasn’t considered an “employee” and therefore had no grounds to file suit.
That story prompted DC City Councilor Mary Cheh to propose a bill that extended its Human Rights Act to protect unpaid interns, which the city passed in 2009. Other areas have taken notice of the problem. In June, Oregon passed a law that would protect interns from sexual harassment.
Some universities and colleges have also come to the defense of their students. UCLA, for example, requires that an employer to adhere to its sexual harassment policy to list an unpaid internship on its website.
The vulnerability of unpaid interns has been written about since at least 2010, but little to nothing has been done at the federal level. If laws were set up to protect interns who experience sexual harassment, they might be more willing to come forward. But right now, they must rely on recommendations from internships to get ahead in the job market. That means that if the company or state doesn’t have a law to protect them if they come forward, they may just end up with no recourse and no recommendation.
All of this is because of the widespread practice of hiring interns without paying them. Some have launched a fight against this practice that has just begun to change the culture of internships. After a court ruled that two unpaid interns should have been paid for their labor, 15 other lawsuits popped up, and the number will likely continue to grow.