By Dana Panczenko
Staff Columnist

Summer jobs, minimum wage, and unpaid internships are all part of the transition students take from their comfy living situation in college in order to get enough experience to even be considered for a job in the real world. Unpaid internships are increasingly becoming some of the most common internships for undergraduate students, although companies will always say that they are really paying you in experience. With the commonality of unpaid internships rising, the rights of the unpaid intern are being called into question. After all, paid employees have protection and rights guaranteed through the Department of Labor, including wage rights, the right to medical care and leave, as well as protection from harassment covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Earlier this month, the decision in a Manhattan Federal Court made it abundantly clear that unpaid interns do not have the same rights as paid workers, when Judge Kevin Castel declared that Lihuan Wang could not sue her employer for sexual harassment because she was an unpaid intern.

Wang was a student at Syracuse University who had an unpaid internship at Phoenix-Satellite Television in New York. Wang stated that her boss “lure[d] her to his hotel room…tried to kiss her and squeezed her buttocks with his left hand…after she refused…[her boss] no longer expressed interest in permanently hiring her” (Emily Jane Fox, CNN Money). Wang believes that she was not offered a paid position at the company because she turned down her bosses advances. What would have normally been a pretty cut and dry sexual harassment case became complicated by the fact that because Wang was an unpaid intern, she was not technically an employee for Phoenix-Satellite Television, and therefore not protected by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is designed to protect employees against discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” (42 U.S.C. §2000e-2). Sexual harassment cases fall under VII, as it is a form of discrimination based on sex that interferes with “an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment” (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Unfortunately, Title VII is designed to protect employees, and as long as unpaid interns are not classified as employees under the law, Title VII does not cover them.

Without Federal protection for unpaid interns, it is unsurprising that Wang’s story is not unique. Similar cases have been dismissed on the same grounds in Washington D.C., other parts of New York, Ohio, and other states. With so many cases being filed by unpaid interns against their employers for sexual harassment, and dismissed on the grounds that the employees are not protected federally against harassment, it is even more upsetting to discover that Oregon is the only state to extend sexual harassment protection to unpaid interns on a state level, and that they only did so in June of this year (The Oregonian). The disregard for unpaid workers under the law is absurd, and dangerous to unpaid interns who are left unable to find legal ways to protect themselves against harassment. Without any legal recourse for unpaid interns to take, what threat is posed to employers who harass their interns?

I ask each and every reader of this article to think carefully about taking any unpaid internship in the future. Although you get experience from unpaid internships, you do not get any money or any legal protection against harassment with them. There is a giant loophole in our legal protection of our workers, and as long as unpaid workers remain vulnerable under the law, I think it is time to ask yourself whether or not an unpaid internship that leaves you legally unable to report workplace harassment is worth the line it will fill on your resumé.

The Elm

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