Unpaid internships deny interns employee benefits under 1964 Civil Rights Act

Students across campus planning to take part in an internship in the near future may wish to review their rights following a recent judge’s ruling in a case about unpaid interns and sexual harassment.

A New York federal district court ruled that an unpaid intern who was suing her former employer for sexual harassment could not actually bring a lawsuit since she was not considered an employee and therefore not protected by the law.

Michael LeRoy, professor of employment and labor relations, said that sexual harassment is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He said there are state law equivalents for smaller employers but these laws apply only to employees.

“If the victim is not an employee, she has no recourse under Title VII,” LeRoy said. “It’s sad, but true.”

LeRoy explained that courts use the definition of “employee” derived in the Fair Labor Standards Act — in short, someone who allows or commits to work.

“The boundary gets blurred when a student, for example, interns in a summer position,” LeRoy said. “Many organizations like to have free work done for them and students like to do the free work to get a job experience, resume building and perhaps an inside track to a job.”

The Fair Labor Standards Act also outlines provisions to determine whether a situation is an unpaid internship.

Should conflict arise, many employers establish clear policies to address interns’ concerns. Mark Niemeyer, an engineering supervisor for Caterpillar’s Research Park location, outlined the chain of communication for his company’s interns.

“We invite them first to talk to their supervisor. If they don’t feel comfortable talking to their supervisor, we suggest they talk to their supervisor’s manager,” he said. “If they’re still not comfortable with that, there are bulletin boards all over the office with numbers they can call.”

Although Research Park companies offer paid internships, whose rules differ from unpaid, these companies are careful to address situations in a timely manner and to the best of their ability, said Laura Bleill, assistant director of external relations at Research Park.

“Being on our campus and having relationships with our students is such a big part of why they’re here,” she said.

Students should inform themselves of the conditions of an unpaid internship and follow all company procedures to address concerns in order to ensure they’re receiving fair and proper treatment.

“Know your sponsor. Do your homework. Ask others who interned about the quality of their experience,” LeRoy advises. “If the sponsor is unwilling to share those contacts, think about moving on.”

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