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Can An Intern Be Sexually Harassed?

United States and New York law prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace. This prohibition applies to employees and paid interns. However, despite the fact that unpaid interns are just as vulnerable to inappropriate behavior, they are generally not able to sue for sexual harassment. If you are an intern and have been sexually harassed by a supervisor, call one of the New York sexual harassment attorneys at Phillips & Associates. We can assess your situation and discuss your options with you.

Sexual Harassment of Employees is Illegal

Employees are protected from sexual harassment because it is a form of gender discrimination. Sexual harassment comes in two types. Quid pro quo harassment occurs when employment benefits are given or withheld in response to the victim’s actions. One example is an offer a raise in exchange for sexual acts. The second type of harassment is evidenced by a hostile work environment. Simply put, a hostile work environment exists when a supervisor or coworker engages in unwanted physical or verbal conduct that creates an offensive or hostile workplace.

A hostile work environment caused by sexual harassment can be created by many different things, including:

  • Sexual comments or emails;
  • Unwelcome physical touching;
  • Sexually explicit jokes; or
  • Non-sexual but inappropriate comments about gender.

These are just a few examples. Generally, one mild instance of inappropriate behavior would not rise to the level of a hostile work environment. But a pattern of behavior or even one instance of extreme conduct could create a hostile work environment.

State and Federal Laws Prohibit Employees from Sexual Harassment

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (the Act) prohibits gender discrimination, and therefore sexual harassment, in the workplace. The law allows employees who are victims of sexual harassment to file suit in federal court. Before filing suit, however, victims are required to report the harassment to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. This federal agency will investigate the claim, and, if warranted, issue a right to sue letter.

There are also state and city laws that protect employees from sexual harassment: the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws. These laws share many of the same principles with federal protections, but they also offer protection to employees who work for businesses with as few as four employees. The federal law applies only to employers with 15 or more employees.

Your Status a Paid or Unpaid Intern Determines Whether You are Protected

Unfortunately, whether an intern is paid affects whether he or she has the right to sue for sexual harassment. In 1994, a federal court determined that unpaid interns were not classified as “employees” under the federal Act. Therefore, unpaid interns were not protected and could not sue their mentor companies for sexual harassment.

Similarly, in a case decided in late 2013, a federal court determined that unpaid interns may not sue their employers for sexual harassment under the New York City Human Rights Law. The reasoning was the same: because the intern was not paid, she was not an employee and not protected by the law.

Despite the failure of legislators and courts to protect the least powerful of workers, contact an attorney if you have been sexually harassed as an unpaid intern. Because the law on on this subject is evolving, there may be exceptions or special circumstances that warrant a challenge in your case.

Contact an Experienced Attorney

If you are a paid intern or employee, you are protected from sexual harassment at work. Unfortunately, unpaid interns lack many of the protections other workers have. No matter your status, contact an experienced New York sexual harassment lawyer at Phillips & Associates if you are the victim of workplace sexual harassment. Even though you ultimately may not have the right to sue your employer, a knowledgeable lawyer can determine whether you have a case or may recommend another course of action. To schedule a free and confidential consultation call (212) 248-7431 or complete our online contact form.

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