Ask any college-aged students the likelihood of attaining a paid internship for the summer, and they are likely to laugh in your face. Why? As young students seeking employment have come to know very well, successfully landing an internship is competitive enough, let alone one with an employer willing to pay you. In fact, in many fields, unpaid employment is expected. Most young employees in these positions, however, do not realize they’re losing more than just wages.
In general, as long as a company can claim that an intern is receiving class credit or learning experience, they can legally hire interns for unpaid positions. Employment benefits are never included, but law professor and intern labor rights advocate David Yamada also emphasizes the loss of civil rights for unpaid interns. He describes their position as a sort of “legal limbo” in not being classified as “employees” under the Civil Rights Act. This means they lack protection in cases such as sexual harassment.
Few interns have attempted to push sexual harassment claims, Yamada adds, suggesting, “If you’re a young student, and have been trying to get a career off the ground, the bind that puts someone in is significant, because there’s retaliation.” In other words, an intern at the bottom of the company ladder is not likely to complain. He or she is more concerned with securing a permanent position or a future reference for other jobs. Why anger upper management and dash your chances instead of quietly accepting your mistreatment?
In fact, a student who filed for a lawsuit when she was sexually harassed at work had her case dismissed because she was an unpaid intern. She lacked the civil rights for such a claim and was not considered an employee. Precedents like these only affirm for young interns that they may have no one to turn to when their rights are violated at the workplace.
On the upside, some companies have broader policies or state or local laws that could protect interns. Oregon passed a law this June to include both paid and unpaid interns in discrimination and harassment protections, the first state to do so. This law, however, did not address compulsory wages. D.C. has also worked to extend Human Rights Act protections against sexual harassment to interns.
The general public’s attitude might best be summed up by Maurice Pianko, founder of Intern Justice, who points out that if employers paid their interns wages in the first place, civil rights protections would automatically apply. Most unpaid employees in the workforce do not predict obligatory payment any time in the near future, however. And no wages means no rights.