Unpaid interns should have right to sue for sexual harassment

Nelson Amaya

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If a student working as an unpaid intern is sexually harassed in his or her workplace, is he or she protected by labor laws? Not unless you live in Oregon. As of last June, it’s the only state in the U.S. to extend its laws to protect unpaid interns from sexual harassment.

California, like 48 other states, has still not updated its laws to protect unpaid interns. Because of how the Civil Rights Act is worded, it excludes unpaid interns from the ability to seek legal recourse in these situations.

Under the Civil Rights Act, unpaid interns are not accounted for since they do not receive a paycheck. They are not considered an employee and consequently, they cannot sue for sexual harassment.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is still something that happens in 2013. To leave a loophole open that gives people in position of power an opportunity to exploit that is disgusting.

According to Statisticbrain.com, there was a total of 11,364 sexual harassment lawsuits in 2011, a figure that has been decreasing since 2008.

The loophole was highlighted a few weeks ago in New York, when Lihuan Wang, an unpaid intern at Phoenix Satellite Television’s New York Bureau in 2010, lost a sexual harassment suit against her boss, Zhengzhu Liu. The judge ruled she was not considered an employee of the company and couldn’t sue because she was not on payroll.

According to the lawsuit, Wang said her boss lured her to a hotel under the guise of “business discussions.” At a hotel room, Liu squeezed her bottom and tried to kiss her. Wang pushed him away and left the room.

When she later attempted to seek a job at Phoenix after she would graduate, Liu invited her to Atlantic City for the weekend to discuss job opportunities, of which Wang refused. Liu responded by not offering her a job.

If employers are only being given slaps on the wrists for sexually harassment or even sexually assault on those in vulnerable positions like unpaid interns, there is no fear or reason for them to stop.

Liu had a history of similar situations with other interns, according to the lawsuit, and was eventually fired by the company after its own investigation.

Many unpaid interns are doing the same work that paid employees are getting paychecks for. These interns are already not being paid any money for what they contribute, and to use that against them so they can’t sue for sexual harassment only twists the knife more.

States need to update current laws to prevent unpaid interns from being taken advantage of. Unpaid internships are a way for many young people to strengthen their resumes, gain valuable experience and network. By not offering that simple protection, it demeans these young people and their work.

If unpaid internships continue to exist, they should be used to provide the education and experience young people need, not as a venue to exploit power.