Federal Judge Denies Employment Protection to Unpaid Intern
An employment relationship is generally characterized by payment exchanged for labor or other professional services, in addition to other factors. For that reason, an unpaid internship may not technically qualify as an employment relationship.
A federal district court recently relied on that distinction in concluding that an unpaid intern -- as a non-employee -- was not entitled to protection under the state’s human rights laws. A broadcasting intern had brought suit under the state’s human rights law, claiming that a station executive had invited her into his hotel room on pretext. Once inside, the intern claims she was sexually harassed.
The station terminated the executive after learning of the lawsuit. However, he seems to have escaped any liability under state or federal employment laws for his alleged action. An employment agreement lawyer might caution that this outcome may be technically correct, but certainly not a best practice.
In employment agreements and employee handbooks, forward-looking employers often try to anticipate issues that might need to be addressed. Many of those issues are financial, such as potential reductions in force or terminations, health insurance coverage, and bonuses. As a best practice, however, an employee might want to revisit its written policies about sexual harassment and internship programs.
Sexual harassment claims are among the most frequent source of employment lawsuits, and even unsubstantiated allegations can tarnish the reputation of employer and employee alike. For that reason, clearly defined examples of acceptable and unacceptable behavior might help everyone -- employees, supervisors and even unpaid interns -- to better understand their legal rights in the workplace.
Source: kfor.com, “Court rules unpaid interns not protected from sexual harassment”