by Peter L. Cassady
Not only do unpaid interns get no wages or any employment benefits, but they also find themselves in “legal limbo” when it comes to civil rights. See U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, Fact Sheet # 71 for the test of what an unpaid intern is. Recently, there have been multiple decisions from the Courts establishing very clearly that since unpaid interns are unpaid, they are therefore not employees. Accordingly, they are not protected by the vast majority of this country’s civil rights laws. In June 2013, Oregon passed a law expanding discrimination and harassment protections to interns, whether they are paid or not. Oregon is the first state to pass such protections. The District of Columbia successfully amended its Human Rights Act to extend its protections against sexual harassment to interns after hearing the story of one intern’s sexual harassment claims against her employer, a massage and body therapy center in Friendship Heights. The intern’s case was dismissed because she was unpaid and therefore not an employee.
Unpaid interns are between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they want to acquire good work experience and show the employer that they might be worth hiring. On the other hand, they are afforded no legal protection, except in Oregon and the District of Columbia, from workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment, unless the company’s personnel handbook specifically extends itself to unpaid interns. Most handbooks do not protect such people.
There is no other way to describe this situation – – it is pathetic and lousy. If you or friends choose to become an unpaid intern, please proceed at your own risk.