When college students, graduate students and others looking to gain valuable experience apply for unpaid internships, they may not realize that they may be unprotected in the event that they are sexually harassed or otherwise discriminated against. Due to reasons that are hard to understand, current employment law provisions and interpretation do not always lend themselves to protecting unpaid interns from otherwise illegal behaviors in the workplace.
It is important to note that regardless of this frustrating reality, unpaid interns should seek out the advice of an attorney experienced in employment law if they are mistreated by their employers or co-workers. Employment law is always evolving and is not applied the same ways in every jurisdiction. Therefore, it will be nearly impossible to determine what your legal options may or may not be unless you consult an expert.
Nevertheless, many unpaid interns across the nation are finding that they are woefully unprotected from unacceptable behaviors while they are at work. According to InternMatch, more than 35 percent of American companies offer unpaid or very low-paying internships. The opportunities and experiences offered by these companies can be invaluable. However, interns should be granted access to important legal protections, even if they choose to forgo a paycheck in exchange for their experiences.
Currently, the protections afforded to interns by the Fair Labor Standards Act are too vague and lack proper accommodations for these individuals. Hopefully Congress will soon either revise this law or pass a new law insisting that every American worker, paid or unpaid, is entitled to be respected in the workplace.
Source: The Huffington Post, “No Intern Pay? No Protection From Harassment,” Ashley Mosley, Feb. 14, 2014