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Unpaid interns not protected by sexual harassment laws

Category: Sexual Harassment, Wrongful Termination

Being the victim of sexual harassment at work can be devastating. Not only are there physical and emotional effects of being harassed, threatened or mistreated, but a person’s career may also be put in jeopardy. It is sadly not uncommon for sexual harassment victims in California to be fired, demoted or denied a promotion. The fact is that many employers will unfairly punish an employee for refusing unwanted sexual advances or because that employer is fearful that the employee will file a claim.

In general, however, employees have the right to take legal action if they have been victims of a wrongful termination. Federal and state laws in California are put in place to protect workers from being mistreated on the job, so if and when a supervisor or employer violates these laws, victims can take legal action. But a recent case in another state is highlighting a troubling weakness in these laws concerning unpaid workers.

The case involves an unpaid intern who worked at a media conglomerate subsidiary in New York. The intern was led to believe that she was being considered for a full-time position, but those opportunities vanished once she denied the sexual advances of her superior. According to the intern, the station’s bureau chief approached her in a hotel room and touched her inappropriately. He tried to kiss her but the 22-year-old girl refused to let the physical contact continue.

After the upsetting situation, she says she was no longer a candidate for a full-time position.

She tried to file a claim against the company, but was prohibited from doing so because a judge ruled that since she was an unpaid intern, she was not technically an employee. Therefore, she was not protected by employment laws.

Currently, California is among the states that do not have laws protecting unpaid interns from sexual harassment on the job. People have argued that the failure to protect these workers is irresponsible, as they are often performing duties similar to those of employees and work in the same environment as employees. Leaving them out of employment protection puts them in a very vulnerable position.

What do you think? Should California employment laws be expanded to include unpaid interns in protections from sexual harassment?

Source: CNN Money, “Unpaid interns not protected from sexual harassment,” Emily Jane Fox, Oct. 9, 2013

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