Report: Sexual Harassment Protections Scant for Unpaid Interns

On the surface, it would have seemed a very straightforward case of sexual harassment. sadness1

A senior male employee corners a younger female worker with unwanted comments about her body, tells her she should participate in an orgy with him and suggests that she remove her clothing before coming into meet with him. The allegations were further substantiated by the fact that a number of other women had made similar claims.

However, our Costa Mesa sexual harassment attorneys understand that her lawsuit was swiftly dismissed, a decision upheld by a federal appellate court. The reason? According to the court, the plaintiff had no standing in the case because she was an unpaid intern, and therefore not an employee, entitled to civil rights protections under the law.

This was way back in 1994.

Investigative journalism non-profit Pro-Publica has recently taken to spotlighting this issue once again, noting a recent decision by city leaders in Washington D.C. to extend sexual harassment protections to unpaid interns there. The state of Oregon, too, recently passed a similar measure, allowing that discrimination and sexual harassment claims could be brought fourth by all interns – paid or not.

We don’t know how many interns face sexual harassment at work, but we do know that they are a particularly vulnerable group as a whole. They tend to be young. They are inexperienced. They are relying on a positive review from the employer to help advance their career. They don’t want to rock the boat.

When it comes to sufficient legal grounds upon which to file a sexual harassment claim, paid interns are generally in a much better position. That is because they can establish “significant renumeration.” According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, significant renumeration is what separates a volunteer from an employee. So for example, a paid intern would receive significant renumeration in the form of a paycheck. However, an unpaid or “volunteer intern” doesn’t have this clear-cut establishment of the employer-employee relationship. If the benefit is some “inconsequential incident of an otherwise gratuitous relationship,” the intern won’t be considered an employee for civil rights purposes.

But that doesn’t mean unpaid interns can’t ever qualify for employment civil rights protections. Significant renumeration may come in the form of access to professional certification. It may also come in the form of third-party benefits. So if your university is providing you class credit for your time spent on the job, that could be considered “significant renumeration.”

No one should have to endure sexual harassment in the workplace, period. But it’s especially troubling to think that those who have endured it would have no recourse to justice.

Our California employment lawyers are encouraged that some places have taken steps to address this legal loophole. But we also recognize more needs to be done. We are committed to ensuring that your civil rights in the workplace are vigorously protected, no matter what your circumstances. There are a number of legal angles from which we may be able to approach your case. If you are unsure about the strength of your case, contact our offices today for more information.

Costa Mesa employment lawsuits can be filed with the help of the Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.

Additional Resources:

How Unpaid Interns Aren’t Protected Against Sexual Harassment, Aug. 9, 2013, By Blair Hickman and Christie Thompson, ProPublica

More Blog Entries:

California Sexual Harassment Training Required for Certain Firms, Aug. 12, 2013, Costa Mesa Sexual Harassment Lawyer Blog