A New York District Judge ruled that unpaid interns are not protected from sexual harassment as promulgated by the New York Human Rights Law because they are not deemed to be “real” employees. This ruling was based upon claims of a 26-year-old Syracuse University graduate and unpaid intern, Lihuan Wang, who allegedly experienced sexual advances from her supervisor and boss in 2009.
She claims that when she was 22-years-old and working as an unpaid intern at Phoenix Satellite Television U.S., the American branch of a Hong Kong-based media company, her boss allegedly lured her into his hotel room and tried to force himself on her with kisses, groping and other unfavorable actions and statements.
In his decision, New York Judge Kevin Castel wrote, “It is uncontested that Wang received no remuneration for her services. New York City’s Human Rights Laws protection of employees does not extend to unpaid interns.” The boss was ultimately fired from Phoenix.
What Does This Mean?
As there are numerous state and federal regulated statutes protecting employees from both discrimination and harassment, only one state offers these protections to unpaid interns. At this time, the only state to offer sexual harassment protection to unpaid interns is the state of Oregon.
If you do not have status as an employee, meaning, if you are not paid for services provided to a company, the rules supported by the New York City Human Rights Laws do not apply to you and any claims of discrimination or sexual harassment will not withstand a claim in the courts.
How Does This Affect You?
As most interns, specifically unpaid interns, are young, naïve and impressionable, this ruling (along with others that support this ruling) unfortunately leaves many open to unwanted advances without any form or retribution. Whether based upon state or federal laws, most courts hold on to the premise that if you are not technically an employee, you are not entitled to any rights given to employees. As most courts these days are also coming down on unpaid internships due to other claims involving back pay, etc., it is safe to assume that the role of an unpaid intern is being significantly admonished.
Though you may want to obtain work related experience in an area of interest, by any means necessary, all signs are pointing away from an unpaid internship. Not only are companies being reprimanded for them, the actual interns are not provided protective rights. If you are in a position as an unpaid intern, and have experienced any form of sexual advances or harassment, you should report it to Human Resources, just so they are aware and can take any action hey choose against the aggressor. However, your best bet (in my opinion) would be to graciously remove yourself from that company and the unpaid position.
Rashida Maples, Esq. is Founder and Managing Partner of J. Maples & Associates (www.jmaplesandassociates.com). She has practiced Entertainment, Real Estate and Small Business Law for 9 years, handling both transactional and litigation matters. Her clients include R&B Artists Bilal and Olivia, NFL Superstar Ray Lewis, Fashion Powerhouse Harlem’s Fashion Row and Hirschfeld Properties, LLC.
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