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Thursday, October 27, 2016

by Blair Hickman and Christie Thompson, ProPublica

In 1994, Bridget O’Connor began an internship at Rockland Psychiatric Center, where one of the doctors allegedly began to refer to her as Miss Sexual Harassment, told her that she should participate in an orgy, and suggested that she remove her clothing before meeting with him. Other women in the office made similar claims.

Yet when O’Connor filed a lawsuit, her sexual harassment claims were dismissed because she was an unpaid intern. A federal appeals court affirmed the decision to throw out the claim.

Unpaid interns miss out on wages and employment benefits, but they can also find themselves in “legal limbo” when it comes to civil rights, according to law professor and intern labor rights advocate David Yamada. The O’Connor decision (the leading ruling on the matter, according to Yamada) held that because they don’t get a paycheck, unpaid interns are not “employees” under the Civil Rights Act — and thus, they’re not protected.

Federal policies echo court rulings. The laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, including the Civil Rights Act, don’t cover interns unless they receive “significant remuneration,” according to commission spokesperson Joseph Olivares.

“At least with respect to the federal law that we enforce, an unpaid intern would not be legally protected by our laws prohibiting sexual harassment,” Olivares said in an email to ProPublica.

It’s unclear how many interns are sexually harassed at work. The commission doesn’t keep those statistics, according to Olivares. And as the Chicago Tribune detailed in 2011, interns often don’t know where to turn when faced with harassment or can fear retaliation from bosses they look to for future jobs or recommendations.

“You can understand perhaps why there haven’t been more cases,” said Yamada. “If you’re a young student, and have been trying to get a career off the ground, the bind that puts someone in is significant, because there’s retaliation.”

Olivares noted that while federal laws don’t protect unpaid interns, company policies and state or local laws could sometimes broaden workplace protections.

In June, Oregon passed a law expanding discrimination and harassment protections to interns, whether they are paid or not. According to Charlie Burr, spokesperson for the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries, Oregon is the first state to pass such protections.

“Those principles of protecting people in the workplace have been in place for a long time, but they’ve never applied to interns,” said Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian. “It really left them with few options.”

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  • silence dogood

    Keep adding more requirements and there will be no such thing as interns.

  • Allan Richardson

    Interns started out as ways for students to be exposed to a work environment for the PURPOSE of enhancing their education, WHILE also attending classes, or AS a class.

    Now, in certain industries, internships have become a subterfuge to get free labor, unrelated to actual educational purposes. Since getting “fired” as an intern can be harmful to one’s intended career, employers of interns can get away with anything (which may be why Stephen Colbert and David Letterman get so many laughs when they perform skits parodying the treatment of interns; and for all the audience knows, the “interns” in those skits may be paid actors).

    So if “internships” outside of actual education go away, the intern-employing companies will have to hire at least minimum wage employees to replace them; possibly the SAME people who are interns now. And that will, in the long run, be a good thing. The first paid job in these industries would be more accessible to a greater variety of people; today, the only graduates who can get considered for a paid job are those who could afford to work for nothing for a year or two, which excludes lower income graduates.

    Sorry to disappoint you, Silence, but no more interns (except hospitals and classrooms) would be a good thing.

  • latebloomingrandma

    This “law” makes no sense. Interns and volunteers are not paid, but there are probably some sort of contractual agreements between the intern’s intended experience and the school, and interns Even volunteers go through some kind of training. Both have to be photographed and have badges identifying them. One would think that these people would have some kind of rights protecting them from a hostile environment.