Why Unpaid Interns Can Be Sexually Harassed at Work

Rights, Safety, Tips & how-to

Man's hand on woman's knee Not everyone is protected from sexual harassment at work. Suits filed by unpaid interns over harassment claims are quickly dismissed from court. Unfortunately, unpaid workers don’t enjoy the same protections as workers on company payroll. Bosses can harass interns and retaliate when interns complain about their behavior — and it’s totally legal.

Differences Between Paid Employees and Unpaid Interns

People starting careers are often willing to work for free in hopes of propelling themselves into a good job in the future. Sadly, they sometimes sacrifice more than a paycheck and employment benefits for any hope of a promising future — it can mean putting up with sexual harassment.  Unpaid interns are not “employees” under the Civil Rights Act – and thus, they’re not protected.

Employees, as well as paid interns, are meant to provide a benefit to the employer in return for payment. Unpaid internships are created to benefit the intern educationally (they are not meant to be a means for employers to train employees without pay, for instance).

According to the Department of Labor, an unpaid internship must meet all these criteria:

  • The internship is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
  • It’s for the benefit of the intern
  • The intern doesn’t displace paid employees
  • The employer doesn’t benefit from work the intern is doing
  • The intern isn’t promised a job at the end (the arrangement is not an “unpaid tryout”)

Unfortunately, businesses aren’t jumping at supporting legislature that would bring added regulation to their business, especially where unpaid interns are concerned. More rules could discourage businesses from letting interns in at all, some argue, but since it’s already illegal for unpaid interns to be of benefit to a business, it’s unclear why, since those who use unpaid interns for profit are breaking the law anyway.

Will Things Change?

Unpaid internships may be well on their way to becoming illegal; the recent “Black Swan” ruling, where interns were doing the work of paid workers, shows that many think simply choosing not to pay someone makes them a legal intern.  Again, internships must benefit the intern, not the employer — and the benefit of college credit, as shown in this case, isn’t enough to justify withholding pay.

While federal law doesn’t protect unpaid interns, company policies and state or local laws could offer their own protections. Oregon law protects interns — on payroll or not — from discrimination or wrongful termination based on discrimination. Washington, D.C.’s sexual harassment protections were recently extended to interns. If companies paid interns when they legally should — which is probably most of the time — protections and benefits (not to mention pay) offered to employees would automatically be extended to to interns. Better enforcement of law — and a bit of added protection for interns here and there — will help to keep sexual harassment illegal in the workplace for good.