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Interns in the United States: Unpaid and Unprotected

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October 18, 2013

No benefits, long hours, random tasks, and all for the sake of “experience” on our résumé. As if unpaid internships weren’t already terrible enough. It’s basically free labor for employers in a competitive job market where purse strings are tighter than ever. The pressure to accept an unpaid internship is way too familiar for college students and youth attempting to remain competitive in a dog-eat-dog job market. Besides lacking benefits that paid employees receive, unpaid interns are now denied basic workplace protections.

A broadcasting intern in New York, Lihuan Wang filed a suit against her supervisor Liu Zhengzhu only for her claim to be denied by New York’s Southern District Court. Zhengzhu invited Wang back to a hotel room to “drop off a few things,” but that ended in a sexual advance towards Wang where he took off articles of clothing, attempted to kiss her, and tightly grabbed her butt. Zhengzhu is guilty of both instances of sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment where work lunches apparently mean a quickie in a hotel room, but he also offered more job opportunities to Wang.

The courts found that since Wang was an unpaid intern and not recognized as an employee, her claim was denied under New York’s law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act do not cover unpaid interns. Now, not only are we unpaid for our work, but we have no protections, ultimately stuck in “legal limbo”. This creates a unique power position for employers to allow for more instances of sexual harassment for unpaid interns.

Currently, Oregon is the one and only state to extend protections to unpaid interns. This sexual power dynamic applied to the work force creates cases where youth and college students are uniquely targeted and exploited. This case further reinforces the idea that sex is a fulcrum for power and where an individual’s body is given a price tag. This denial of basic work protections creates a slippery slope where more inappropriate sexual acts occur between unpaid interns that go unreported and, ultimately, unprotected.

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