Who counts as a “real” employee? And who’s protected from sexual harassment in the workplace? Not unpaid interns, according to the ruling issued last week by a New York federal district court.
Lihuan Wang, a recent graduate from Syracuse University, lost a sexual harassment lawsuit against her former employer Phoenix Satellite Television because she did not receive pay, and consequently does not qualify for basic workplace protections covering full employees.
Wang was a 22-year-old intern with the media conglomerate in 2010 when she was sexually harassed by the station’s Washington D.C. bureau chief, Zhengzhu Liu. According to sexual harassment lawyers, Liu lured Wang – along with many other female interns – to his hotel room by claiming that he wanted to have a business discussion. There, Liu allegedly asked Wang “why are you so beautiful?” throwing his arms around her and groping her buttocks while forcing her into a kiss. Wang left the room immediately and reported the incident.
Sexual Harassment Lawsuit
Unfortunately, New York Judge Kevin Castel ruled that Wang and other interns are not protected by the New York Human Rights Law because they are not paid workers (and thus not employees). As Judge Castel wrote in his decision, “It is uncontested that Wang received no remuneration for her services. New York City’s Human Rights Law’s protection of employees does not extend to unpaid interns.”
But for many, this one-two punch only multiplies the sense of injustice here: not only are interns fair-game for harassment and other illegal workplace discrimination; they also receive no pay for enduring that abuse.
Journalists at KTVU characterized the law covering internships (and the ruling on Wang’s harassment case) as “a license to be a creep.” And commentators across the legal and business communities – not to mention women’s rights, worker’s rights and anti-sexual violence organizations – have expressed outrage that in the 21st century, an American court would declare that sexual harassment is just fine as long as the victim is not being paid for their work.
In June, Oregon became the first and only state to extend sexual harassment protection to unpaid interns.
Over the past year, unpaid internships have come under the spotlight as workers’ compensation lawyers, labor attorneys and workers’ rights advocates point out the glaring exploitations that take place in these arrangements, including violations of Disability and ADA, Sexual Harassment, Workplace Discrimination, and overworking interns to levels that are hazardous to their health – even occasionally leading to death from exhaustion.
While Wang did not receive the justice she deserves in this case (she has since moved back to China, evidently preferring that country’s legal system to our own) Liu was fired from Phoenix TV following a company investigation into the allegations, which revealed that he had harassed many other women in the company as well, both interns and traditional full-time employees.