Human Rights Laws Fail to Protect Unpaid Interns

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This summer, rights for unpaid interns became a national story. In June, a judge ruled that the production company for “Black Swan” owed back pay to two unpaid interns. In addition, numerous people criticized Sheryl Sandberg after she recruited unpaid interns for her Lean In Foundation.

A recent decision in New York should bring greater attention to these issues. A New York federal district court ruled that an unpaid intern could not bring a sexual harassment lawsuit under New York human rights laws because she was not an employee. Lihuan Wang worked as an intern for a TV broadcasting company and suffered sexual harassment from a bureau chief.

The New York court dismissed the legal complaint because she did not receive any money from the TV company. The judge indicated that “New York City’s Human Rights Law’s protection of employees does not extend to unpaid interns.” Courts have previously ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act also does not protect unpaid interns from sexual harassment because the law does not consider the interns employees.

As a result, New York lawmakers have proposed legislation to provide protections to interns similar to protections provided to employees. Currently, only Oregon has a law that protects unpaid interns from workplace harassment.