Some areas of law are well established, while others are evolving at a rapid pace. One aspect of employment law is currently being developed in contradictory ways. Some states recognize unpaid interns as employees for the purposes of protections under the law. Other states treat unpaid interns as individuals who are not quite employees but are deserving of certain protections and rights under the law. Still other states fail to adequately protect interns simply because they are not technically hired professionals and do not get paid.
One New York judge recently embraced the approach of treating unpaid interns as unprotected under the law. The case in question involved whether unpaid interns may sue employers for unjust sexual harassment. This particular judge insisted that because unpaid interns are not “real” employees for the purposes of discrimination law that they may not sue if they are harassed.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit was a 22-year-old intern when she was allegedly sexually harassed by a television bureau chief. According to the complaint, the woman and other female interns were harassed in ways that included forced kissing and sexual touching that was not consented to.
Failing to protect the plaintiff and other interns in similar situations from sexual harassment simply because they are not paid for their work is unjust and illogical. While only one state’s legal code explicitly extends harassment protections to interns who are unpaid, employment law protections should logically be extended to anyone who formally performs work for a given employer. Unpaid interns certainly fall within this category and as a result, members of the bench should interpret employment law accordingly.
Source: USA Today, “Judge: Unpaid interns cannot sue for sexual harassment,” Emily Atteberry, Oct. 9, 2013