A federal judge ruled Thursday that unpaid interns in New York City cannot sue employers for sexual harassment. Manhattan Federal Court Judge Kevin Castel wrote in a decision handed down Oct. 3 that interns are not on a company's payroll, so they cannot be considered employees. Therefore, they aren't covered by the city's Human Rights Law.
The Human Rights Law in New York City has been changed a number of times to extend protections to different groups, but none of these changes protect unpaid workers.
The ruling comes out of a case filed in January on by 22-year-old Lihuan Wang. The lawsuit alleged that two weeks into her internship at Phoenix Satellite Television US's New York location, Wang was lured into her supervisor's hotel room under false pretenses where he attempted to kiss and grope her. Wang reported her supervisor and he was fired as a result of the company's internal investigation.
Lihuan Wang's case was a particularly grievous example of sexual harassment, but she is far from the only intern who has been harassed. One in five women report being sexually harassed by a superior at work. Given the prevalence of this type of harassment, it's very disturbing that the people lowest on the food chain have no protections.
Fortunately City Councilwoman Gale Brewer has already pledged to introduce legislation that would protect the city's interns. With any luck, Councilwoman Brewer will find support on the City Council and close this damaging loophole.