As if unpaid internships weren’t already bad enough, here’s a story that will make you hate them even more: a New York City judge ruled this week that an intern at Phoenix Sattelite Television Company cannot file a sexual harassment lawsuit against her boss because she is not an employee of the company.
The judge ruled that since interns are not paid and do not receive benefits like pensions and health insurance, they are not protected by the same laws that protect employees during legal disputes against a company.
The intern alleging harassment is Lihuan Wang. She filed her suit against the company in January. Wang’s complaint claims that her supervisor, Zhengzhu Liu, asked her to stay behind after a company lunch to discuss her performance. Liu asked Wang if she would accompany him up to his hotel room so that he could drop off some luggage. Once inside the room, Liu put his arms around Wang, groped her, and asked “Why are you so beautiful?” while trying to kiss her.
Wang said the ordeal lasted about five seconds and then she left the room.
To make matters worse, Wang’s complaint says Liu’s inappropriate actions are commonly known amongst female interns.
“In all cases, the message—which Mr. Liu made explicit at times—was clear: if you want to advance in your career at Phoenix, you must submit to Mr. Liu’s unwanted sexual advances,” the complaint says.
The legal protections granted to company employees under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act do not apply to interns. This isn’t all that surprising given that unpaid internships did not used to be nearly as common as they are now. Despite the prevalence of unpaid interns across the country, only Oregon has drafted legislation granting legal protection to them. While the rest of the country catches up, hundreds of claims like Wang’s are denied.
Attorney Lynne Bernabei, Wang’s attorney, says this is a legal loophole that desperately needs to be closed.
“As young interns, these are the most vulnerable people and clearly they should be protected,” she said.