Unpaid Interns Left Unprotected from Sexual Harassment


As the summer internship season winds down, many students are returning back to school with full confidence and a rewarding experience topping their resume. Unfortunately, many are not so lucky. Harassment is the last thing that an intern expects when they land their dream program, least of all sexual harassment. Yet the practice is undeniably present — although studies are rare, the Chicago Tribune reported that a 1994 study discovered 49% of interns experienced at least "one form of sexual harassment." To add to the discomfort, Propublica reminded us recently that anti-harassment laws do not cover unpaid interns.

Interns deserve the same protections as full employees. Repeated harassment can create an unbearable working environment for an intern, who has little recourse for action. Few are willing to sacrifice their positions, and therefore choose to remain quiet, allowing for the practice to worsen and proliferate.

While sexual harassment laws are well-incorporated in the educational system, and are somewhat present in the workplace, interns don't legally fit in either category. Therefore, they lose the protections of either category. Bridget O'Connor, a student who was harassed as an intern in a regional hospital, argued her case in the Second Circuit. Yet the court concluded that the case did not stand because O'Connor was not an employee of the hospital, nor was the internship program an "educational program." Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects those who receive "significant renumeration" for their work, which the court ruled was not applicable to O'Connor.

Gaining experience is a significant payment, and the threat of its removal a serious concern. The court is confusing an internship and a volunteer who might have an opportunity to leave without incurring substantial loss. To anyone who has ever applied for an internship, the process is as daunting since it can be a significant determining factor in future employment.

What can one do when encountering such grotesque practices? First, know the law. Sexual harassment includes two categories: quid pro quo and hostile environment. The first refers to threats by a superior to make employment decisions unless the individual submits to their conduct. The second, and most common, occurs when the harassment is "unreasonably interfering" or "creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment." Quid pro quo is actively protected against in the court system with some civil cases being successful for interns. However, hostile environment is much more difficult in legal recourse.

Although Oregon recently extended protections for interns, such legislation is unlikely to come to the federal level soon. Unfortunately, interns should be advised to allow for a backup plan in the first two weeks, when most sexual harassment incidents arise. Nevertheless, never be afraid to report behavior to other superiors or the program manager. It's unlikely to be the first such case, and any responsible employer would end the offending practice for fear of future employee cases. Most importantly, ever allow for your dignity to be trampled.