Unpaid interns vulnerable to harassment

Most Arizona employees are under the protection of federal laws designed to prevent workplace discrimination and sexual harassment. Surprisingly, those protections may not apply to some of the youngest and hardest working people in the actual buildings where state laws are crafted. Because of employment classifications, legislative interns are especially vulnerable to harassment and discriminatory workplace behaviors.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin. The law is applicable to sexual harassment cases and outlaws tolerance of behavior that creates a hostile work environment as well as direct harassment of employees. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is in charge of enforcing federal laws against discrimination against most employers. Unpaid interns are often not considered employees under the law, and therefore cannot rely on traditional labor law protections like most workers. With high profile cases against some state lawmakers, legislative interns may be in the news, but the distinction applies to most unpaid interns. Some legislatures have enacted sexual harassment policies and procedures to protect employees, but most make no mention of interns. Of those that do address interns, they do not specifically convey standing to sue as an employee.

If an intern receives a paycheck or stipend, he or she is more likely to be classified as an employee under federal laws. In some jurisdictions, laws have been passed to specifically classify interns as employees, but in other places it remains an open question. In cases where an intern receives academic credit, the intern is less likely to be considered an employee.

Efforts by activists are helping to create much-needed consideration in state legislatures regarding workplace harassment. Consulting an employment law attorney can help bring clarity to individual situations and provide potential victims with plans of action if they have been subjected to inappropriate behavior.

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