In California’s competitive job market, starting a career in almost any field can be a challenge. In order to gain advantage in seeking a job after finishing school, many students take on unpaid internships as a means of acquiring valuable work experience.
However, because of their unpaid status, these interns are not eligible for all of the same legal rights extended to regular employees. Currently, discrimination and sexual harassment protections in the workplace are not federally mandated for interns.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that in order for a worker to be afforded the protections guaranteed by the Civil Rights Act, the worker must be receiving payment. This leaves unpaid interns vulnerable when faced with unwanted sexually-related advances or comments from a boss or co-worker.
Recently, The New York City Council addressed the issue. The council passed a bill giving interns working in New York City legal protections against being sexually harassed or being on the receiving end of discriminatory practices. The bill comes as a response to a dismissal issued by a federal judge of a sexual harassment claim filed by an intern against her boss.
At present, only Washington D.C. and Oregon have similar legislation issuing sexual harassment protections for interns in place. However, California currently has a bill in committee written to address the inequity. Will interns here soon be a protected class of workers?
Unpaid internships can create a situation of great mutual benefit. The interns can receive valuable exposure to a field in which they are seeking a career. The employers can receive free labor while being able to assess a potential new-hire. But to ensure a secure work experience, critics of the status quo argue that interns should have all the rights afforded to paid employees regarding issues of harassment and discrimination.
In California, federal laws offer protection against sexual harassment for paid employees. You do not have to suffer silently while receiving continued unwanted advances or derogatory comments. If your employer is unwilling to help make negative behavior cease, there are attorneys who may be able to act on your behalf.
Source: The Huffington Post, “Interns Are Now Protected Against Sexual Harassment In NYC,” Blair Hickman, March 28, 2014