The subject of unpaid internships has appeared in headlines recently, with the articles focusing on unfairness and how companies mistreat their unpaid interns. Unpaid interns do not have the same legal protections as paid employees, therefore companies can mistreat the interns with impunity.
As it stands, under the Civil Rights Act, unpaid interns are not covered under the provision protecting employees from basic employee rights violations, like sexual harassment in the workplace. Because unpaid interns don’t receive any monetary compensation, the law says they aren’t technically employees, despite the fact they show up to a business, do the work, and have to contribute to the business’s success.
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) spokesperson Joseph Olivares says that because unpaid interns don’t receive “significant remuneration,” which includes pay, “pension, group life insurance, workers’ compensation, or access to professional certifications,” they are unprotected against workplace harassment. This puts unpaid interns in a very tough spot.
The life of an unpaid intern is not an easy one. Most of them are broke college students and take on the workload because they want impress employers and build up their reference list. And since they want to obtain good marks on their resume, they will usually accept any harsh treatment given and, often, remain quiet if mistreated.
It’s tough because students are put in a really difficult position,” said College of the Holy Cross summer internship program director Amy Murphy. “You need an internship, and you need to build your resume. Employers are often in the position of power, so it can be difficult for interns to voice concerns if abuses occur.”
But on the few occasions that unpaid interns do stand up and file suit against employers that violate employee civil rights, the cases almost always get thrown out because the plaintiff’s are unpaid.
Some state and municipal lawmakers have been enacting and pushing for legislation that would ensure the fair and ethical treatment of unpaid interns. The Oregon State Senate and State House of Representatives unanimously passed a law that extends the protections of unpaid interns against harassment and discrimination in the workplace. The law guarantees unpaid interns the right to file lawsuits against employers that violate basic, workplace civil rights.
In Washington D.C., city council member Mary Cheh was able to secure similar provisions into the D.C. Human Rights Act. But because the recent push for pro-labor rights for unpaid interns is still small, the mistreatment of interns still remains a huge problem.