California may soon be joining Oregon as the only states to provide protection against workplace discrimination and harassment for unpaid interns. A Democratic legislator announced that she will introduce a bill in January that grants unpaid employees and interns the same legal protection against harassment and workplace discrimination that is given to paid employees.
Both state and federal law provides protection for paid employees, but interns and unpaid employees are not explicitly included. This leaves unpaid interns vulnerable to legislative loopholes. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of sex, race, color, religion and national origin. A recent ruling in New York found that this statute does not apply to unpaid interns because they are not officially employees. In this particular case, a student working as an unpaid intern reported sexual harassment by her supervisor. Under New York law, the intern was declared to have no legal standing to file the suit.
It is this sort of scenario that the assemblymember hopes to avoid. Skinner believes that forgoing pay does not mean interns are forgoing their civil rights.
A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 77 percent of women have engaged in unpaid internships, compared to 23 percent of men. The recent recession is still forcing many young people into unpaid work in order to gain the experience and make the contacts necessary in a tough job market.
The extension of these basic civil rights to unpaid interns should encourage safer working environments for all employees. Both paid and unpaid employees need to be aware of their rights in the workplace. An attorney practicing employment and discrimination law can advise individuals of their legal rights and the obligations of their employer. A lawyer can help victims of workplace discrimination or harassment pursue redress of grievances.
Source: Huffington Post, “California Law Would Finally Protect Unpaid Interns From Harassment And Discrimination“, Lydia O’Connor, December 10, 2013