Discrimination Laws Do Not Extend To 'Unpaid' Interns

By Moses Frenck

Photo by Shutterstock

It’s a little known fact that interns in the workplace are not protected from discrimination under the law, and some members of Congress are seeking to change that by extending civil rights protections to unpaid interns who work for federal or state governments or private-sector companies.

Since unpaid interns are not financially compensated, they are not considered employees and therefore are not afforded the protections granted by the Civil Rights Act, which requires that workers receive “significant remuneration” to have any recourse.

“It is unacceptable that employees and interns working right next to each other have different levels of protection against abuse,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who together with Reps. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., and Bobby Scott, D-Va., this week sponsored three pieces of legislation that would make it illegal for public and private sector employers to discriminate, sexually harass and retaliate against interns. “There should be no legal grey area when we are talking about preventing sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace,” Cummings added.

Presently, there are no federal laws or safeguards that protect unpaid interns against sexual harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age, handicapping condition and other factors, the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

Under their proposal, an intern who faced such discrimination could sue in court under the Civil Rights Act.

If passed, the bills would clarify the definition of “intern” as “someone who performs uncompensated voluntary service in an agency to earn credit awarded by an educational institution or to learn a trade or occupation”; extend workplace protections against discrimination and harassment to unpaid interns; and close existing loopholes that permit such discrimination.

“Internships are often the first real entry into a profession and onto a career path,” Scott said in the statement. “The Unpaid Intern Protection Act would ensure that interns in the workplace are free from discrimination and harassment.”

Meng added that “a negative experience like this can be devastating to young interns as they start their careers, and these types of incidents can have terrible impacts on their futures.

“Internships can be a wonderful opportunity to learn and gain valuable real-world experience but interns, most of whom are high school and college students, are not afforded the same federal workplace protections that cover employees,” she added. “That is blatantly unfair and this loophole in the law must be changed. Nobody from a junior intern to a senior executive deserves to be harassed, discriminated or retaliated against at work.”

According to a report by The Huffington Post, several legal cases have been dismissed because courts have concluded that unpaid interns are not employees covered by the Civil Rights Act. However, it added, about a half-dozen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws protecting unpaid workers from sexual harassment or discrimination. The most recent was in Connecticut last month where the state House of Representatives unanimously approved similar legislation.

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