Could unpaid internships result in employment litigation?

Unpaid internships in Oregon and across the country have been around as far back in history as most people can remember. Internships were thought of as a win/win situation. An employer gets a free worker, and the intern gets on-the-job training and experience. Sounds like an all-around win, right? Not according to some Human Resources experts and the director of the Center for Human Resources at Wharton School of Business. They believe that companies are ignoring the Fair Labor Standards Act and exploiting the talents of young people.

A professor of legal studies and business ethics claims that unpaid internship is outright illegal. She says that employers have either forgotten about the Fair Labor Standards Act, or they believe it doesn’t apply to them. Even President Obama and the White House have unpaid interns, despite the president’s push for increased minimum wages across the country. An advocacy group has petitioned the president to begin paying White House interns – regardless of the cost – which is estimated at $2.5 million annually.

One of the biggest problems with unpaid interns appears to be the fact that they are unprotected like regular employees are. Most have no recourse of action if they are harassed on the job. Because of this, more and more unpaid interns have begun to challenge the status quo. Class-action lawsuits from former interns who are claiming “employee status” are beginning to surface. Companies such as NBC Universal and the Charlie Rose show have been challenged in class-action suits from former interns.

Also, in response to a lawsuit brought against a Chinese news agency by an intern who claimed sexual harassment, the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio signed a new law into order. The intern claimed she was groped by her supervisor, and the case was thrown out because she was not an employee. The new law gives unpaid interns the right to bring a lawsuit against an employer for harassment or discrimination.

Not all internships are unpaid; however, even paid interns rarely have the same protection as regular employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Civil litigation or business litigation cases may become more and more common when it comes to interns and their status in the workplace. Both businesses and young interns need to be aware of their rights and who they should contact if those rights are being infringed upon.

Source: Source: Human Resource Executive Online, "No More Working for Peanuts," No Author Given, July 8, 2014

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