Unpaid interns, volunteers to be protected from sexual harassment, discrimination

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Legislation to protect unpaid interns and volunteers from sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday and will go into effect in January.

The bill, AB 1443, was authored by California State Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and expands current protections against sexual harassment and discrimination for employees, unpaid interns and volunteers. Types of discrimination covered in the bill include race, gender, sexual orientation and religious creed.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects employees from workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment, yet unpaid interns did not apply because they technically did not count as employees.

New York, Oregon and the District of Columbia also passed similar laws protecting unpaid interns. However, no such legislation has been passed at the federal level.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Skinner said that because the job market is becoming more competitive, the number of people seeking internships has increased, and many are taking on unpaid positions.

“People providing work without pay deserve the same protections in the workplace,” Skinner said. “It’s a good law and the governor did the right thing to extend these protections to everybody in the workplace regardless if they’re on payroll or not.”

The bill came in response to a New York federal district court’s ruling last fall that a Syracuse University student could not sue a company — where she worked as an unpaid intern — for sexual harassment because she did not count as an employee.

The case harkens back to 1997, when an appeals court ruled that a Marymount College student had no protections against sexual harassment at a hospital for which she interned because she was not a paid employee.

Savannah Badalich, a UCLA senior and sexual assault survivor, has taken on unpaid internships every summer she has been at UCLA. She supports the bill and said [that] providing protections for unpaid interns and volunteers is a “no-brainer.”

“This is only rectifying something that should have been provided at the very beginning,” Badalich said.

Skinner said she did not experience much pushback from her colleagues and that they felt it was a reasonable measure. But she noted that some companies were concerned the legislation would potentially expand their liability.

Meghan Warner, a UC Berkeley junior and sexual assault survivor, said the bill is long overdue and stressed that all workers — both paid and unpaid — should be protected from sexual harassment and discrimination.

“Safety in the workplace is more important than companies’ concerns that they have to pay more money,” Warner said. “Everyone deserves to feel safe and comfortable at work and have that basic protection (and be) free of harassment, discrimination and violence.”

Jean Lee covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @missjeanlee.