Five Things Every Intern Should Know About Their Rights

My first year of college, I spent a frantic month applying to internships. I desperately wanted to work in politics, but I didn’t have any campaign experience, and all I cared about was a candidate I believed in. I would have taken any job that looked promising, no questions asked.

I had a great summer that year. But not all my friends were so lucky. Interns I knew were harassed everywhere from research labs to the Hill. Five years later, as I plan for internships as a law student, I’m more cautious than ever. Before interviewing anywhere, I check in with advisors and old interns, just in case there’s an “open secret” I’m not in on.

Interns are some of the most vulnerable workers in any industry. We’re often underpaid, young, and hoping an unpaid internship will turn into a full-time job. We don’t have a resume or network to fall back on if we’re retaliated against. Perhaps worst of all, unpaid interns are not considered “employees,” so they appear to be excluded from Title VII, a federal civil rights law prohibiting sexual harassment. That means many interns have no federal remedy when they’re harassed at work and their company does nothing to stop it.

Are you interning this summer? Here are five things you should know:

  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment. Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. That includes sexual violence on the job. According to the National Women’s Law Center, employers can be sued for sexual harassment that knew about — or that they should have known about — but which they didn’t immediately or appropriately act to correct.
  • Many interns fall through a shocking loophole in federal civil rights law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects “employees.” But unpaid interns might not be considered covered employees under the law, according to the federal agency in charge of enforcing it. In 2011, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released an informal discussion letter about interns’ rights (or lack thereof). The EEOC wrote that “unpaid or volunteer interns” probably aren’t protected by Title VII’s prohibition on sexual harassment, unless they receive “significant remuneration” (that is, some significant compensation, like pensions or workers’ comp). But benefits from a third-party, like a school, don’t count — so if you get benefits or credit from your university, that still might not mean you have Title VII rights.
  • But federal law hasn’t completely left interns behind. There are a few key exceptions. The first exception is paid interns. Paid interns aren’t volunteers, according to the EEOC, so they’re far more likely to be considered full employees under federal civil rights law. But it’s not as simple as paid/protected v. unpaid/unprotected. Even for paid interns, courts consider a gamut of other factors before determining that a paid intern is an employee with Title VII rights, including the employer’s authority to assign projects and set hours for the intern, the pay schedule, and the employer’s control over when, where, and how the intern performs. Plus, the EEOC has left the door open for unpaid interns to be considered employees under Title VII, if the internship “regularly leads to paid employment with the same institution.”
  • State laws can be way more protective. Even with these exceptions, federal law has a massive loophole leaving many, many interns at risk of harassment and without a federal remedy. But states are stepping in to close the intern gap. In 2013, Oregon became the first state to explicitly extend laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment to interns, allowing interns who are harassed at work to sue or file a complaint with a state agency. Since then, other states and cities have joined, including California, Illinois, Oregon, Washington D.C., and New York City.
  • We can fix this. Every single intern should be protected by harassment and discrimination. Does your state have a law to clearly extend protections from sexual harassment to all interns? What about to other workers excluded from Title VII, like domestic workers? Right now, legislators in Texas to Idaho are considering legislation to close the intern gap. If you live in one of those states, call your lawmakers to get behind them. And no matter where you live, call your congressional representatives to demand a federal fix.

I am not a lawyer and this post does not constitute legal advice. If you do need pro bono legal advice, submit an intake to the National Women’s Law Center/Times Up Legal Defense Fund here.

Header image via Buzzfeed.

Sejal Singh is a columnist at Feministing, where she writes about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice. Sejal is a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national campaign to end gender-based violence in schools, where she has led several state and federal campaigns for student survivors' civil rights. In the past, Sejal led LGBT rights campaigns for the Center for American Progress. Today, she is a student at Harvard Law School and a frequent speaker on LGBTQ rights and civil rights in schools.

Sejal Singh is a law student and columnist at Feministing, writing about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice.

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