Unpaid interns fall into a gray area of employment law: Some federal courts have dismissed unpaid interns' sexual harassment claims, for instance, because the plaintiffs did not fit the definition of "employees." The Ninth Circuit has made some progress in this area, however, and it is clear that the law should protect this highly vulnerable class of workers.
This article by TELG managing principal R. Scott Oswald and David L. Scher was published by The Daily Journal on March 31, 2014. The full article is available as a PDF on our site.
Interns at heightened risk of harassment
Assume that an individual shows up every day to work, performs side-by-side with company employees, takes direction from his or her supervisor, receives performance evaluations, and even makes presentations to his or her managers.
Assume further that the individual is a young person, has relatively little job experience, and desperately wants to do whatever he or she can to impress his or her supervisors. These individuals — with little work experience, no leverage in the employee-employer relationship, and an unabating desire to please "the boss" — are likely at the greatest risk of being taken advantage of by their employer.
It seems axiomatic that these individuals should be afforded protection under the law. But surprisingly, numerous courts have ruled that Title VII's prohibitions on sexual harassment do not apply to unpaid interns.