Unpaid internships are a bit of a devil’s bargain: Every summer, college students donate their labor and time for experience in a chosen field, the chance to get noticed — and perhaps even hired.
The bad pay package is a given. But my guess is that very few interns also factor in a lack of legal protection: Under the laws of most states, including Michigan, unpaid interns are uniquely vulnerable to sexual harassment or other discriminatory practices.
In a few notorious cases, including Lihuan Wang’s 2013 lawsuit in New York, judges refused to hear cases involving unpaid interns and sexual harassment, ruling that the interns aren’t employees and thus aren’t covered by workplace laws.
Syracuse University graduate student Wang claimed she’d been ushered into a hotel room by her boss, grabbed and forcibly kissed. But she lost her day in court when the judge decided there could be no hostile work environment since she wasn’t an employee.
Even the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed that federal law against sexual harassment doesn’t apply to unpaid interns.
These rulings helped pass protective laws for interns in Washington, D.C., Oregon and New York. They also outraged David Knezek, a Democratic state rep from Dearborn Heights, who was elected to the state Senate last week; and Matthew Marks, who spent last summer as an intern at a Lansing lobbying firm.
Knezek, a 28-year-old former Marine sergeant, introduced a bill. Today Marks, a Michigan State University senior, is organizing a legislative day for college students to “raise awareness” among legislators and Knezek’s bill. He expects more than 30 students to converge on the state Capitol.
“We are bringing in students from all over the state,” says Marks, who created the Michigan Equal Protections for Interns Coalition (www.miepiec.org) last summer. Knezek and staff members from other legislative offices are giving the students a crash course in how to talk to legislative staff members.
“We’re hoping to raise awareness and get the bill moving,” says Marks, a Deerfield, Illinois, native majoring in political theory and constitutional democracy. Marks, who interned for a Lansing lobbying firm last summer, is practicing what he learned. “I had a good situation,” he says, “But I’ve talked to students who say they did experience sexual harassment.”
The bill (HB 5691) amends the Michigan Occupational Health and Safety Act to give equal protection under the law to volunteers and unpaid interns. “Right now, Michigan State and other universities are sending thousands of students into positions where they have no recourse,” Marks says.
Knezek applauds Marks and other students at MiEPIC. “I’ve been so impressed by their commitment. They refuse to allow someone else to make decisions for them. They’ve really become instrumental in this process and are an example for students across the state,” he told me.
Even with a law, of course, students looking for employment are unlikely to challenge their employers’ conduct. But passing a law is one way to tell employers there is no open season on interns: They’re people, too.