This is my fifth unpaid internship. I’ve worked for non-profit organizations that couldn’t have afforded to pay me and a fancy magazine that could. Some were worth it, others weren’t. But I accepted each one with the same sense of desperation and vulnerability.
Multitudes of young, aspiring professionals like me spend dozens of hours on unpaid internships every week. Why? Because we’re terrified. We fear the world beyond the stage we will walk across to accept our diplomas.
Employers often take advantage of our fear. They know the economic downturn has pummeled us, that we’re saddled with exorbitant student loans, and that we’re entering an increasingly competitive job market. They know we’ll accept any pay — even none at all — if we can burnish our résumés enough to get in the door of the kind of place where we’d like to work someday.
The exploitation of my free labor is something that I’ve begrudgingly accepted by telling myself over and over that it’s an “investment” that will ultimately prove “worth it.”
But I can’t stomach the fact that, as unpaid employees, interns are denied the same basic civil rights as paid staff. Because we’re not officially labeled “employees,” we lack legal recourse against employment discrimination based on race, religion, gender, or nationality, as outlined by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Under this protective umbrella lies the legal framework to sue for sexual harassment in the workplace. Let me repeat that, because it’s almost unbelievable in its repugnance. A group of human beings goes to work every day knowing it’s legally powerless against unwanted sexual advances. I’m one of these people.
I’ve held plenty of paid jobs since I was 15, some of which enabled me to intern for free elsewhere. I’ve dressed up as a big purple bird and done the cha-cha slide. I’ve wiped co-ed sweat off of my university’s gym equipment. I’ve even cleaned a sports bar’s predictably messy “Wizz-o-meter” urinal. For all that cringeworthy indignity, at least I could protect myself against sexual harassment.
Lihuan Wang, 22-years-old at the time, was one of the millions of interns without that legal protection. After her boss groped and tried to kiss her in a hotel room during a work conference in 2010, she sued the company, Phoenix Satellite Television. But a New York judge threw out her case earlier this month. Why? She wasn’t a paid employee.
This legal loophole isn’t new. In 1994, Bridget O’Connor interned at a psychiatric hospital in New York. After the doctors called her “Miss Sexual Harassment” and urged her to come to meetings naked, she filed a lawsuit against the hospital. The court ruled that her employment status rendered her unprotected under the law.
These cases are particularly troublesome when you consider that over three-quarters of America’s unpaid interns are college-aged women.
Most intern postings ask for candidates that are “flexible and adaptable” with an “enthusiastic and positive attitude.” In other words, you’ll need to accept lowly tasks no one else wants to do. Oh, and don’t forget to thank your non-paying “employer” for this opportunity.
I refuse to be this happy housewife. So what is to be done? The end-goal should be abolishing the idea that working for free is a necessary rite of passage. It’s this exact idea that has left us both unpaid and unprotected.
An essential first step is to expand the legal framework for workers’ rights to include unpaid employees. So far, Oregon is the only state to do so. New York may be next. But we need to carry this momentum and pressure our lawmakers and regulators to create something on the federal level.
Perhaps a new amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act would suffice. There are amendments forbidding the discrimination based on age and gender, but they don’t apply to unpaid employees.
If the organizations and companies taking advantage of our free labor can’t give us a salary, at least give us basic civil protections.