Judge: no protection against workplace sexual harassment for interns

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating or harassing employees due to gender, sex, or religion, among others. Many states have passed their own variations of workplace discrimination and harassment laws as well.

However, the issue becomes complex when the definition of "employee" comes into play.

A recent case from New York involves interns and whether they are classified as "employees" and thus protected from discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace.

The New York case

The case involves a 26-year old female who alleged that she was sexually harassed in 2009 at a company in which she worked as an intern. (An internship is essentially an on-the-job apprenticeship where the intern gains valuable work experience but doesn't get paid.)

The female filed a workplace sexual harassment lawsuit in a New York district court against the company arguing a violation of the New York City's Human Rights Law.

However, the judge ruled that since the intern was not paid by the company, she did not meet the classification as "employee" under the law and thus could not pursue the sexual harassment claim.

A Title VII case

In 1994, an intern brought a sexual harassment lawsuit in New York in violation of Title VII, but the court ruled in that case that the intern wasn't protected under the law. The court reasoned that since the intern received no pay, benefits or sick time, she did not meet the definition of employee under Title VII.

States that protect interns against sexual harassment

Unfortunately, many states, including Florida, follow similar laws as New York and have no laws that offer protection for interns who are sexually harassed or discriminated against while "working" on the job.

However, this may soon change. This past June, the legislature in the state of Oregon recently passed a law that, along with regular employees, would prohibit any form of discrimination against interns.

Specifically, the Oregon law would allow interns to seek legal action against employers they are working for as a result of sexual harassment or discrimination because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or whistleblower actions, among others.

Future of workplace protection for interns

In the wake of increasing popularity of internships and the need for valuable on-the-job experience, it's likely other states-possibly Florida-will follow suit and pass laws protecting all workers, paid or otherwise, from hostile workplace environments.