Due to legal loopholes on both federal and state levels, unpaid interns can’t sue for sexual harassment from employers. But that could change with attention a recent case is attracting, UF experts say.
The issue took national spotlight when a woman in New York filed a lawsuit against her former company, claiming her boss sexually harassed her.
The judge presiding over the case said she had no right to sue because she did not qualify as an employee — she was not being paid for her work.
The issues aren’t restricted to New York. Oregon is the only state where unpaid interns can actually sue for sexual harassment, USA Today reported this week.
Robert Emerson, a professor at the UF business school, said the judge’s decision was not a shock.
“I don’t think it’s surprising given the statute and the legislation,” he said. “A lot of judges are reluctant to craft remedies or rights that go beyond the literal wording of a statute or regulation. They feel like that’s not their role.”
Joseph Little, an emeritus professor at the UF Levin College of Law, also thought the judge had valid reasoning to throw the case out based on the law that was in place.
He did, however, say he was wary of the definition of an employee.
“The thing I would probably disagree with is the conclusion that under the circumstance, the intern was not an employee,” he said.
Maya Halaly, an 18-year-old UF animal sciences freshman, said the law should be changed to not have payment in the definition of an employee.
“Everyone has human rights, and you’re still an employee even if you don’t get paid,” she said. “Harassment is still harassment.”
Both Emerson and Little discredited the idea that the loophole was meant to benefit or protect businesses.
Some of the laws the judge in the New York case referenced when making this decision are decades old, including the federal Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that expanded employee rights in 1964, according to court documents.
But companies can still have a vested interest in these cases, Emerson said.
Even if companies aren’t required to pay interns, giving interns the legal grounds to sue is a risk that management isn’t likely to promote.
“If you start giving more rights to people — interns and others — it’s one more drag on perhaps having internship programs in the first place,” Emerson said.
But Alexandra Steele, an 18-year-old UF biology freshman, said she expects the laws to progress quickly with the changing times.
“The number of interns are increasing,” she said, “and awareness of sexual harassment is also growing, so I expect things to change quickly.”
Halaly and Steele both said they would quit if they were ever harassed as an intern, but they wouldn’t stop there.
“I would try to fight until that is fixed,” Steele said.
Looking forward, Emerson said he expects legislators to tighten up the laws regarding interns.
“It’s an interesting case, and hopefully maybe something will change in terms of the law because of publicity of cases like this,” he said.
A version of this story ran on page 5 on 10/16/2013 under the headline "Unpaid interns denied legal sexual harassment protection"