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Are unpaid interns protected by the Civil Rights Act?

When it comes to unpaid internships, readers of our blog have seen us touch base on how these types of employees are compensated in Indiana, but we have never really delved into whether their civil rights are protected by the law. For some of our readers, this may seem silly. Unpaid interns should be protected by federal and state employment laws. But what might surprise our readers is that this might not be the case right now.

That’s because, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, unpaid interns are not protected by the same laws as other employees due to how they are compensated. Because they don’t receive monetary compensation for their services, the EEOC does qualify them as legally protected employees. As a result, this is putting a lot of unpaid interns in hostile working environments, including cases of sexual harassment, with no help of relief in the end.

As many of you may know, sexual harassment is prohibited by federal law in workplaces across the nation. So too is retaliation for reporting such behavior. But because unpaid interns are not covered by these laws, these employees are finding that their civil rights are being violated with little recourse. Because of this loophole, many court judges’ hands are tied and cannot rule in favor of plaintiffs despite having a legitimate case.

While some state laws already offer civil rights protection to unpaid employees, the rest of the nation does not. It’s because of this exact reason that a former unpaid intern for Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries recently brought this concern to the attention of the Labor bureau. She argued that this gap in employment law needs to be closed in order to further protect a person’s civil rights across the nation. Just as we say on a regular basis, every employee--paid or unpaid--should be able to seek legal representation when their civil rights are being violated in the workplace.

Source: Pro Publica, "How Unpaid Interns Aren’t Protected Against Sexual Harassment," Blair Hickman and Christie Thompson, Aug. 9, 2013

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