Unpaid and unprotected

Interns, take note: Washington may be the internship capital of the world, but it is not particularly friendly territory — legally speaking, anyway.

U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle ruled last month that the D.C. Human Rights Act — one of the most expansive civil rights laws in the country — does not give unpaid interns who claim to have been sexually harassed by a boss the right to sue.

The law, Judge Huvelle concluded, protects only those who earn a paycheck. Judge Huvelle's decision arose in the case of a New Jersey college student who alleges that she was sexually harassed last year when she interned at a D.C. chiropractic office. The supervisor she named in her lawsuit vehemently denies the allegation. Judge Huvelle dismissed the sexual harassment claim under the Human Rights Act but allowed a battery claim to proceed.

It's hard to argue with Judge Huvelle's reading of the D.C. law, which closely tracks the federal anti-discrimination statute that also has been interpreted to exclude interns. The Human Rights Act defines an employer as "any person who, for compensation, employs an individual." Thus, employers who do not provide financial remuneration to interns are off the hook for sexual harassment and other bias claims under the law.

Judge Huvelle's decision, believed to be the first to analyze the rights of interns under this law, reveals the flaws in the statute. The D.C. Council should rewrite the Human Rights Act to allow interns to bring sexual harassment claims. To be sure, interns do not have as much at stake in a workplace as conventional, paid employees. Paid workers owe their livelihoods to the company. Many may feel pressured to endure intolerable advances because they simply cannot afford to quit without another job in place.

But linking the right to press a sexual harassment claim to the existence of a paycheck does not make sense, either. Many interns may not receive money, but they, too, may feel compelled to endure a hostile workplace. Students rely on internships to gain valuable work experience that could help them land a future, permanent job. Some programs require students to complete internships for college credit. An opportunistic boss could use the threat of a bad evaluation or a bad recommendation to coerce an intern. The fact that most interns are young and inexperienced and that many are out-of-towners only adds to the possibility of exploitation — and the need for legal protections.

— The Washington Post

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