Why it now sucks even more to be an unpaid intern

The disappointing outcome of Lihuan Wang's sexual harassment suit shows how vulnerable interns are

Creepy boss
(Image credit: (Thinkstock))

In addition to constantly taking Starbucks orders, making photocopies, and working endless hours for free, unpaid interns actually suffer an even bigger indignity: They cannot sue for sexual harassment.

While some people sarcastically joke that being an unpaid intern is slave labor, the comparison is getting some credence with a new case highlighting how swiftly unpaid interns' complaints are dismissed in courts.

This week, a suit brought by 26-year-old Lihuan Wang against Phoenix Satellite Television U.S. was dismissed by a New York federal court. Wang's case appeared to be a pretty clear-cut example of sexual harassment by her majorly creepy boss, Liu Zhengzhu, during her time as an intern there in 2009: She claims he grabbed her and forced her to kiss him while squeezing her buttocks, and when she asked about job opportunities, he asked her to go to Atlantic City with him. Unsurprisingly, Zhengzhu has since been fired because of all the other sexual harassment complaints brought by (paid) female employees.

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However, despite the compelling evidence, the court ruled Wang doesn't count as an employee, even though she was doing much of the same work as those who were paid at Phoenix. None of her accusations of sexual harassment mattered because "New York City's Human Rights Law's protection of employees does not extend to unpaid interns," wrote Judge Kevin Castel in his decision.

As upsetting as Castel's decision is, he is not misinterpreting the law. In fact, he blamed the City Council for amending the Human Rights Law several times in recent years but failing to include a provision for unpaid interns. (An interesting political side note: Mayoral front-runner Bill de Blasio headed the committee in charge of the last overhaul, so watch to see if the issue comes up in the race).

Before you start hating on New York, though, the only places where unpaid interns can sue for sexual harassment are Washington, D.C., and Oregon. So, unless you want to "Put a Bird On It" or go to a city that has essentially banned working, expect to have no legal recourse against any office-mate getting grabby.

Even more disturbing, the reason state and local laws are so bad at protecting unpaid interns stems from federal laws, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Blair Hickman and Christie Thompson at ProPublica write that in the eyes of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employee rights are only guaranteed for people receiving "significant remuneration."

Obviously, when the Civil Rights Act was enacted, legislators didn't envision a job structure in which close to half of all college grads do unpaid work to eventually get a full-time job. But while the law has been updated to accommodate gender and sexual discrimination, interns are one of the last overlooked groups.

In a horrible ironic twist, there's a pretty good chance these unpaid interns with sexual harassment suits should be getting paid under the law, which would have instantly offered them protections.

But as with sexual harassment, unpaid interns may be hesitant to sue for their financial due. Carole Degolu, who helped draft Oregon's state provision for unpaid interns, told ProPublica, "Interns are in a fragile place. They want to get their foot in the door, so they don't complain."

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