Rep. Wittenberg Introduces Bill to Protect Interns from Sexual Harassment

Unpaid interns would get equal protection under MIOSHA standards
Thursday, February 4, 2016

LANSING — State Rep. Robert Wittenberg (D-Oak Park) and state Sen. David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights) introduced legislation today that would ensure that all employees, whether paid or working for an educational purpose, would be protected from discrimination and harassment in the state of Michigan.

“The current exclusion of unpaid interns from standard employee protections leaves thousands of people vulnerable to any kind of harassment and discrimination,” said Wittenberg. “Unpaid interns are valuable parts of every office who contribute considerable time and energy. For that reason, they deserve the same protections as everyone else.”

In 2009, a student named Lihuan Wang took an unpaid internship at Phoenix Satellite Television’s New York office. In 2013, she sued the company, alleging her boss had sexually harassed her on multiple occasions despite her repeated efforts to resist his advances. Unfortunately, her claim was thrown out of court when the judge found that she was not an employee because of her unpaid status and therefore not entitled to typical employment protections. In response to this case, the state of New York has since rectified the inequity in their laws as have several other states, including California, Oregon, Connecticut, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.

“When I first learned that interns weren’t protected from things like sexual harassment here in Michigan, I was appalled,” said Sen. Knezek. “The Michigan Legislature itself relies heavily on unpaid staffers and interns looking to gain legislative experience while attending college or university. Many attain credit from an institution of higher learning in exchange for their service.”

 Senate Bill 768 and House Bill 5328 would amend the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act (MIOSHA) to add unpaid interns to the definition of what is considered an employee. This simple change will provide them with the proper protections that all other employees share as it pertains to sexual harassment and discrimination. Currently six states and Washington, D.C., provide either protection from harassment or discrimination or both; Michigan would be the seventh state if legislation were adopted.

 “To think that these students might not be protected from harassment and discrimination is very troubling. They give a great deal of themselves with no expectation of a salary in return; the very least we can do is ensure that they’re treated fairly,” said Knezek.