“The Employee’s Lawyer” Says Unpaid Interns Deserve Same Workplace Protection Rights as Paid Employees

Also Calls for Financial Compensation for Performing Certain Work Duties

Attorney Steven Mitchell Sack, “The Employee’s Lawyer,” says that college students who perform work duties at companies without pay should be extended the same protection from sexual harassment in the workplace as their paid counterparts. He says the fact that they are unpaid should not make them more susceptible targets of their co-workers’ or supervisors’ unwanted advances.

New York State Senator Liz Krueger recently introduced legislation calling for interns to be given the same civil rights in the office as those to which paid employees are entitled under state law. The bill would further define internships, explicitly ban sexual harassment of interns in the workplace and apply these protections to interns. Currently, it is sitting in the Senate’s Rules Committee awaiting review.

The bill was in response to a federal judge’s dismissal of a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by an intern against her supervisor, who she claimed groped and attempted to kiss her. The judge ruled that unpaid interns were not protected under New York City’s human rights law.

A similar lawsuit was brought by an unpaid intern who worked at the Rockland Psychiatric Center. She claimed that doctors, who named her “Miss Sexual Harassment,” told her to join in sex acts and take off her clothes. The judge ruled that, since she was not a paid employee, she was not entitled to protection under federal civil rights laws.

“I strongly support Senator Krueger’s bill and I hope it passes the state Legislature and becomes law,” Mr. Sack says. “The current setup in the workplace treats interns like second-class citizens and invites supervisors and co-workers to act towards the interns in an inappropriate manner. If they work just as hard as the paid employees do, then they should be given the same civil rights protections in the workplace.”

Many interns have also taken legal action to be financially compensated. On June 11, a federal district court judge in New York ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures should have paid two production interns who worked on the set of the film Black Swan. Their duties consisted of basic chores such as manning the telephones, getting coffee and taking out the trash. Since then, more lawsuits have been filed — mainly against media and entertainment companies — by interns seeking financial compensation.

“Many companies are using these unpaid interns as a way to save money at the expense of these young people,” Mr. Sack says. “In addition, these companies need to give these interns valuable work experience instead of menial tasks. Teaching interns how the business operates provides valuable work experience; having interns pick up the company president’s dry cleaning does not.”

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