Interns should be protected from sexual harassment, discrimination

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Last week, a Connecticut bill went into effect that prohibits the harassment and discrimination of interns in the workplace. This may seem like a productive legislative step for Connecticut, but what is concerning is that Connecticut is only the seventh jurisdiction to pass laws regarding the protection of unpaid workers.

Oregon, California, Illinois, Maryland, New York and the District of Columbia are the only other jurisdictions that currently have laws preventing interns from being harassed or discriminated against.

While this issue has only made it to the floors of state congresses and the desks of governors recently, it has been at play for some time. In 1994, an intern at Rockland Psychiatric Center in New York filed a lawsuit against one of the doctors for sexually harassing her at work. The lawsuit was dismissed by the center, and again by a federal appeals court because the intern was unpaid, and therefore not considered an “employee” under the Civil Right Act.

The Civil Rights Act, in conjunction with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Laws, protects employees from discrimination based on race, religion, sex or age, as well as from harassment in the workplace. The problem is that such protections are technically extended only to employees, differentiated from interns in that they are paid for their work.

As internships are becoming increasingly important for college students to obtain, it is unacceptable that more states are not extending anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws to apply to unpaid workers. And, at a time when party politics are dominating the conversation surrounding social problems, this kind of legislation is something that both parties could support throughout the country.

U.S. News and World Report found that an average of 38 percent of graduating college students in the class of 2013 participated in internships throughout their years as undergraduate students, and that percentage is only growing. Last year, a little under two million students graduated from college, which means that around 760,000 of them had internships, and 760,000 of them were not protected against discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

Tulane is a top 50 university that provides an extensive list of internships for its students, and encourages students to seek out those opportunities. As an institution that promotes the value of internships, Tulane should seek to bring about laws that will protect its students from unfair treatment when they go out into the world.

Internships are beneficial for students, and provide opportunities to gain work experience, pursue passions and build networks that will be valuable upon graduating. Tulane should work to ensure that we can continue to capitalize on internship opportunities without those opportunities taking advantage of us.