Interns may work without pay, but that does not mean they should work without protection against harassment and discrimination

By Amy Semmel

Unpaid internships are touted as the first rung on the modern ladder to career success.  But it may come as a surprise to learn that unpaid interns are currently falling through a loophole in California’s comprehensive anti-discrimination laws.  Next week, the California Assembly Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing to consider Assembly Bill 1443, a bill designed to close that loophole and provide interns the same protections against discrimination, harassment and retaliation that regular employees now have.

According to editors at the popular fashion industry website, Fashionista, “Internships can be a great way to break into the industry – actually we’d argue that they’re pretty much the only way to break into the industry.”  Here in Hollywood where I work, successful directors, producers, actors, writers and show runners regale us with stories of their lowly start as interns, fetching the coffee and running production errands.

College students and recent grads clamor for the opportunity to get a shot at these entry level “jobs.”  The 2013 College Graduate Employment Survey by a management consulting firm estimates that almost 30% of 2012 college graduates worked at an unpaid internship during college.   Unfortunately, the inherent opportunity of internships brings with it the potential for exploitation of workers who are young, anxious to succeed, and eager to please.

AB 1443 would protect against the kind of sexual harassment faced by Lihuan Wang, a 22-year-old broadcasting intern who took an unpaid internship at Phoenix Satellite Television, only to find herself being lured to a hotel room where she claims her supervisor forcibly kissed and groped her.  Ms. Wang says she learned that the same supervisor had harassed others and reported the harassment to management.  After she complained, the supervisor blocked her employment prospects with the company.  Her discrimination and harassment claims were thrown out of court in New York, which like California had no protection for unpaid interns because they are not considered employees.

Let’s make sure that the first step on the career ladder is a sturdy one for Californians just entering the working world.  Particularly in an economic climate where new college graduates and other young people are willing to work for nothing more than the experience they gain, interns deserve the full protection of California’s equal opportunity laws.


Amy Semmel

About Amy Semmel

Ms. Semmel devotes her practice to eradicating discrimination and retaliation in the workplace. She advocates for employees seeking remedies for retaliation for whistleblowing, discrimination and wage theft. Ms. Semmel is frequently invited to speak at conferences and seminars throughout the state. Subjects on which she has spoken include discovery issues in employment litigation; liability of successor, electronic discovery, alter ego and joint employers; the Private Attorney General Act, and developments in wage and hour law.

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