Unpaid interns are not protected from sexual harassment

On January 9, 2013, Lihuan Wang, a 26-year-old Syracuse University graduate, filed a complaint against Phoenix Satellite Television U.S., the American branch of a Hong Kong-based media conglomerate and Zhengzhu Liu, the station’s Washington D.C. bureau chief who supervised both the New York and the Washington bureaus of the company. Ms. Wang brought her claim in federal court under the New York City Human Rights law.
The complaint alleges that Mr. Liu sexually harassed and sexually assaulted female employees and interns. his sexually aggressive behavior included unwanted touching, inappropriate sexual comments and sexual assault in the office and outside of it.

According to the complaint, Mr. Liu lured and pressured female interns, employees and job candidates into visiting his hotel room under the guise of work. During those encounters at his hotel, Mr. Liu would inappropriately grope them, kiss them and attempt to have sex with them. Mr. Liu induced that if they consented they would advance their careers at Pheonix.
More specifically, Mr. Liu lured Ms. Wang to his hotel by telling her that he wanted to talk about her job performance and the possibility of hiring her full time. He then tried to kiss her and “squeezed her buttocks with his left hand.”

However, New York Judge Kevin Castel ruled that Wang can’t assert a hostile work environment under the NYCHRL because as an unpaid intern, she didn’t have the status of an employee. The court order states: “In sum, the plain meaning of the NYCHRL, the case law, interpretations of analogous wording in Title VII and the NYSHRL, as well as the legislative history of the NYCHRL all confirm that the NYCHRL’s protection of employees does not extend to unpaid interns. Ms. Wang’s hostile work environment claim under the NYCHRL, which requires her to be an employee, is therefore dismissed.”
“It is uncontested that Wang received no remuneration for her services,” Castel wrote. “New York City’s Human Rights Law’s protection of employees does not extend to unpaid interns.”

Other unpaid interns filed similar cases in the past but were dismissed under the same grounds. If an intern does not get a salary, benefits or sick time, she is not considered an employee and is not protected under the law (it is the same for claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act).

So far, Oregon is the only State where protection against sexual harassment was extended to unpaid interns. The State passed House Bill 2669 in June 2013 (which was signed by the Governor on June 13, 2013), extending certain employee protections to interns performing work for educational purposes. The new law requires interns to be “considered to be in an employment relationship with an employer” for purposes of Oregon’s employee protections against certain unlawful employment practices including the following: sexual harassment, discrimination (based on race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or age), disability discrimination, whistle-blower retaliation.

There is a big loophole in employment and it needs to be closed in order to protect unpaid interns in the workplace.

If you believe your rights as an unpaid interns have been breached in some way, please contact the Harman Law Firm, LLP.