As previously discussed on this blog, federal laws do not protect unpaid interns from discrimination or harassment because they do not fit the law’s definition of an “employee.” However, states may choose to adopt laws that extend workplace protections to unpaid interns, which allow them to hold companies accountable for unlawful mistreatment. In June of 2013, Oregon became the first (and only) state to do just that—House Bill 2669 passed, providing unpaid interns with the same protections against discrimination and harassment as paid employees.
However, unpaid interns in other states are not nearly as protected as in Oregon, as demonstrated by a recent case out of New York City. The case dealt with sexual harassment claims by a 22 year-old unpaid intern at Phoenix Satellite Television US. During the first two weeks of her internship, Lehuan Wang inquired about permanent job opportunities with the company and was informed that she would be able to obtain a position for at least the year after her student visa expired, and perhaps longer. Her situation soon changed, however.
Later in her internship, the company’s bureau chief, Zhengzhu Liu, took Wang and other interns out to lunch while he was visiting from Washington, D.C. Following the lunch, Liu asked Wang to accompany him to drop some items off at his hotel so they would have a chance to discuss her job performance and Wang obliged. In the car, Liu allegedly began making sexually inappropriate comments. At the hotel, Wang states he put his arms around her, groped her buttocks, and attempted to kiss her before she could free herself and leave the room. After Wang rejected him, Liu told her that visa quotas would prohibit her from obtaining employment at Phoenix. After her internship ended, Wang attempted one more time to discuss the possibility of permanent employment with Liu. He invited her on a trip to Atlantic City so that they could discuss employment opportunities, and Wang refused the invitation. She then filed suit alleging sexual harassment.
Because New York has no law similar to Oregon’s protecting unpaid interns, the court found in favor of Phoenix on her claims for sexual harassment and hostile work environment. Wang had no way to hold Liu or Phoenix accountable for the mistreatment she endured during her unpaid internship.
The Oregon legislature, on the other hand, has demonstrated its belief that no one should be subjected to unlawful harassment or discrimination in the workplace, whether they are paid or not. The law, which is the first of its kind, strictly prohibits such mistreatment of unpaid interns and gives them the opportunity to seek relief and justice in court. Whether you are a paid employee or an unpaid intern, if you believe you have been discriminated against or harassed, you should contact an employment attorney at HKM as soon as possible.