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In 1994, Bridget O'Connor began an internship at Rockland Psychiatric Center, where one of the doctors allegedly began to refer to her as Miss Sexual Harassment, told her that she should participate in an orgy, and suggested that she remove her clothing before meeting with him. Other women in the office made similar claims.
Yet when O'Connor filed a lawsuit, her sexual harassment claims were dismissed because she was an unpaid intern. A federal appeals court affirmed the decision to throw out the claim.
Unpaid interns miss out on wages and employment benefits, but they can also find themselves in "legal limbo" when it comes to civil rights, according to law professor and intern labor rights advocate David Yamada. The O'Connor decision (the leading ruling on the matter, according to Yamada) held that because they don't get a paycheck, unpaid interns are not "employees" under the Civil Rights Act—and thus, they're not protected.
Federal policies echo court rulings. The laws enforced by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, including the Civil Rights Act, don't cover interns unless they receive "significant remuneration," according to commission spokesperson Joseph Olivares.
"At least with respect to the federal law that we enforce, an unpaid intern would not be legally protected by our laws prohibiting sexual harassment," Olivares said in an email to ProPublica.
It's unclear how many interns are sexually harassed at work....