Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Unpaid internships: worse than you thought?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

The hunt for summer internships has already interrupted my break, and reminded me of how irritating the process really is. I send out a series of groveling letters, begging to do menial work at the lowest rung of my field, practically promising to pay my prospective employer for the privilege of allowing me to do his or her filing. Some of these internships are more interesting than others, but the most frustrating part is the fact that they are almost guaranteed to be unpaid. Last summer, I worked forty-hour weeks for two months, but ended up broke by the end of August.

Obviously, these internships are necessary for college students who want to gain experience or try out a type of work. But the District of Columbia, a mecca for unpaid interns working in Congress, for NGOs and nonprofits, and in the financial sector, is suddenly a very intern-unfriendly place. Under the D.C. Human Rights Act, U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle ruled, interns cannot sue for sexual harassment - because they aren't paid.

This isn't really the judge's fault but rather a flaw in the statute, which defines an employer as a person "who, for compensation, employs an individual." So interns, because they aren't financially compensated, don't count. But really? Under the human rights act, interns are excluded because they aren't paid? As anyone who has interned (or anyone with half a brain) knows, there is absolutely no reason that they should not be given the same resources against sexual harassment; in some ways, interns are more vulnerable, because they are inexperienced and may not know what kinds of behavior is unacceptable. Interns can be coerced through the threat of a bad recommendation or the withholding of college credit, not just the threat of firing.

There is a great editorial in the December 29th edition of The Washington Post which goes into greater depth about the statute and lawsuit itself, but I was appalled both by the law and the ruling. What kind of human rights law is limited only to people who work for salaries? And just because I want a job after graduation does not mean that I am looking for a good time.

Thanks to Aku for the tip!

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