In addition to working for free in a role that may or may not actually benefit their careers, unpaid interns in most parts of the US have another problem to deal with: they have none of the workplace protections enjoyed by paid employees.
It’s sort of crazy to think about, but because unpaid interns aren’t technically employees, most US states allow them to be discriminated against, overworked, and sexually harassed all within the confines of the law.
As you might imagine, this lack of legal protection can manifest itself in ugly ways, especially with regard to sexual harassment.
Take, for instance, the case of Lihuan Wang, a former New York-based intern for the Chinese language TV network Phoenix Satellite Television.
She alleged in court that her supervisor brought her to a hotel room, where he grabbed her butt and forcibly tried to kiss her. While the claims, if true, certainly sound like workplace sexual harassment, a New York federal court ruled in 2013 that because she was not an employee under the law, she had no grounds to sue.
Though Wang theoretically could have attempted to press criminal charges under New York’s forcible touching law, doing so would not protect her from being fired for rejecting her supervisor’s advances or require her employer to make changes to prevent it from happening in the future.
It was Wang’s case that inspired New York state senator Liz Krueger to write a law extending sexual harassment protections to unpaid interns in her state. The bill was signed into law this past July, making New York just the second state where unpaid interns at least have the opportunity to seek justice when their bosses cross the line.
“When I saw how many of these cases had gone this far without resolution, I said, ‘OK, this is ridiculous,'” Krueger tells Business Insider.
On the bright side, New York is not alone in expanding protections to unpaid interns in recent months. Illinois added a statute in August prohibiting unpaid interns from being sexually harassed, and a few weeks later, California followed with a law protecting unpaid interns from both sexual harassment and discrimination. Michigan legislators are also considering a law of their own.
Still, it remains to be seen how much these laws will be able to help unpaid interns in the workplace. Oregon became the first state to ban sexual harassment and discrimination of unpaid interns in 2013, but the state’s labour commissioner, Brad Avakian, tells Business Insider he does not know of any lawsuits that have been filed in the year since.
Indeed, Maurice Pianko, a New York lawyer who specialises in representing unpaid interns, says that while he is glad the state’s law is bringing attention to how unpaid interns are exploited, he doesn’t think many interns will come forward with sexual harassment claims.
Because they are the least powerful members of any company they work for, Pianko says unpaid interns are more likely to keep the inappropriate behaviour of their bosses to themselves for fear of damaging their reputations — both within the company they’re working for and the wider industry they hope to build a career in.
From his own anecdotal experience, he says sexual harassment of unpaid interns is “rampant” in New York workplaces.
Nonetheless, Pianko says just having the law in place could be enough to make supervisors think twice about their behaviour.
“The mindset of an unpaid intern is that they’re willing to sacrifice months of free labour to make connections to get ahead, so they don’t want to lose that,” Pianko says. “But that’s also why they’re easily exploited. They’re already entering into an exploitative relationship from the start, and that sets a bad precedent.”
Though Pianko is unsure whether much progress will be made toward requiring companies to pay their interns, he believes more and more states will outlaw sexual harassment of unpaid interns. There could even be a federal law sometime in the not-too-distant future, he says.
And for now, that would be a step in the right direction.
“I think it’s an easy decision to make,” Pianko says. “There’s not going to be much opposition to this law in any of the states.”