Column: Define interns as employees
We have gone through a momentous period of change — across the nation and here at home in Michigan — as part of the #MeToo movement, but perhaps nowhere has that movement been felt quite as strongly as on the campus of Michigan State University.
It’s been a tumultuous year for these students, who’ve not only come to terms with the extent of Larry Nassar’s predatory crimes against more than 160 women, but with the utter failure of the institutional systems that were supposed to protect young people from becoming his victims.
Unfortunately, some of these students may learn those failures don’t stop at the edge of campus.
Thousands of students at MSU and other colleges around the state are preparing to take unpaid internships over the summer. Several academic programs now require or strongly encourage internships, and many young people will tell you that these internships can help launch the careers of their dreams.
What many of them don’t know is that they won’t have the legal protections afforded regular employees should they face sexual harassment during their internships. Interns who don’t draw a paycheck aren’t legally considered employees, therefore the person harassing them is not their boss or even their co-worker.
Sound outrageous? It is. And that’s why I’ve introduced legislation to close the loophole that makes it possible for predators to harm unpaid interns without legal consequences.
During my time as a state representative, I’ve been honored to work alongside dozens of talented and dedicated interns in the Legislature. I’ve watched them enhance their theoretical knowledge with practical experience about how our government works. They deserve the same legal protections as any other employee, and the thought that they would not have such protection is offensive.
What message do we send young people when we tell them that someone’s legal standing depends on their earning status? Yet, according to Michigan law, these valuable young people who contribute daily to our workplaces can legally be subjected to harassment and discrimination with immunity by the harasser.
That is why I introduced legislation to amend the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act (MIOSHA) to include unpaid interns in the definition of what is considered an employee. This simple change will provide them with the proper protections that all other employees share as it pertains to sexual harassment and discrimination.
It is imperative that the state of Michigan honor and protect these vulnerable individuals. I urge all of my colleagues to support legislation that implements protections for unpaid interns who experience sexual harassment or discrimination.
Rep. Robert Wittenberg represents Michigan’s 27th House district.