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Unpaid interns are not protected from sexual harassment in Michigan

Sep 11, 2014

These days, workplaces of all kinds from radio stations to corporate offices are filled with interns, mainly unpaid interns.

So imagine that you have such an intern in your office anywhere in this state. You think she, or he, is cute.

You ask what she does with her boyfriend at night, and begin touching her inappropriately. Finally, you suggest that if she wants a career, she should come to a meeting without her clothes on.

Can she sue you and the firm for sexual harassment?

The answer is … no.

That sounds absolutely shocking, but courts have repeatedly ruled that unpaid interns are not covered by federal or state civil rights laws outlawing sexual harassment.

Why?

Because they don’t receive financial compensation and so aren’t technically “employees.”

If you think that’s outrageous, it’s because it is. In many professions, most students have to do unpaid internships to have any hope of ever getting a job.

In many professions, most students have to do unpaid internships to have any hope of ever getting a job.

This seemed terribly unfair to State Representative David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights.

Knezek, one of the youngest state representatives, was elected to the State House two years ago at the age of 26 after serving two tours of duty as a Marine sergeant in Iraq.

Last winter, he read about Bridget O’Connor, an unpaid intern at a psychiatric institute in New York.  After enduring repeated harassment from a doctor, she sued. But since she wasn’t paid, her lawsuit was tossed out of court.

Something similar happened with a Phoenix TV intern named Lihuan Wang, who saw the promise of a job vanish after she said no and walked out of her boss’s hotel room.

“That just wasn’t right,” Knezek told me, and this spring, he with 20 co-signers introduced a bill to change that in Michigan.

Originally, they wanted to amend the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights act to extend sexual harassment protections to, quote “an individual who is performing work primarily for educational purposes, including a student intern,” even if unpaid.

Knezek said he’s heard nothing but broad bipartisan support for his bill, but he then realized it might be going nowhere because Elliott-Larsen itself is a hot potato.

There is controversy over whether to extend it to cover individuals who are gay or transgendered, and it is unlikely that anyone will touch it before the election.

So Knezek reintroduced House Bill 5691 as an amendment to Michigan’s OHSA, or occupational safety and health act.

This was all brought to my attention, by Matt Marks, an impressive young senior at James Madison College at Michigan State. Marks, who is from Illinois, has formed a student support group, the Michigan Equal Protections for Interns Coalition.

“Most people I speak to have no idea that unpaid interns are not protected. Many are afraid if they speak up, they will hurt their chances of being employed,” he told me.

Representative Knezek said he intends to fight for this bill this fall, and if that fails, will try again next yea in the State Senate.

Last month, he won nomination for a state senate seat, and is heavily favored to win, but he thinks this is something that shouldn’t have to wait.

Our lawmakers should deal with it now.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.