Most undergrads and graduate students face an uphill battle, even after graduation. With the job market less than welcoming, and a constant barrage of mentors and advisors preaching morosely on the employment climate, grads often feel that they must sacrifice pay, or their dreams, in their first jobs. An internship always seems like a safe bet straight out of school. Offering a chance to learn, more mentorship, and a “taste” of a career, internships can provide a solid resource for grads. However, they can also put a recent grad in a compromising position, with little protections under employment laws.
A story out of London brings interns into the spotlight. Just this week, 21-year-old Moritz Erhardt, a WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management student from Germany, died after working for three days straight at his Bank of America internship in London.CNBC reports that Mr. Erhardt had not slept for three days, and died in the shower in his London apartment. An insider reported that while Bank of America’s interns sometimes worked over 100 hour weeks, he had never heard of a fatality within the Bank’s employees due to overwork.
In the United States, unpaid interns face a different problem. According toPSmag.com, federal and state laws, as well as legal precedent, suggest that unpaid interns may not be protected under employment discrimination laws. A case from the early ninety’s demonstrates the legal grey area that unpaid interns in the United States may face.
Bridget O’Connor was an intern at the Rockland Psychiatric Center in 1994. At the center, she experienced numerous incidents of sexual harassment. For example, a doctor referred to her as “Miss Sexual Harassment,” asked her to undress, and told her that she should be in an orgy. Ms. O’Connor’s claims that the doctor engaged in such harassing behavior was corroborated by other women at the center. Ms. O’Connor filed suit for sexual harassment, but it was dismissed. The reasoning? Ms. O’Connor was not an “employee” under the Civil Rights Act, because he was unpaid.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s policies mirror the O’Connor conundrum. According to the EEOC, interns do not fall under the protections of the Civil Rights Act unless they “receive significant remuneration.”
With few legal protections, and a career on the line, interns who are victims of sexual harassment have almost nowhere to turn. The plain fact of the matter is that if an intern complains, there are also few protections to prevent retaliation against the intern if he or she reports the harassment. Unfortunately, the job market, the laws, and the system, keep unpaid interns in a vulnerable and uncertain position.
If you are a victim of sexual harassment, or any type of discrimination in the workplace, you should seek out the assistance of an experienced employment law attorney. Call the offices of HKM Employment Attorneys today for a confidential consultation.