11:32 am, Oct. 11: this post has been updated to include proposals to amend state legislation.
Last week, a federal judge threw out former intern Lihuan Wang’s sexual harassment lawsuit against her boss at Phoenix Satellite Television U.S. Why? The judge ruled Wang, an unpaid intern, wasn’t an actual employee.
“Because Ms. Wang was an unpaid intern, she may not assert claims under the cited provisions of the [New York State Human Rights Law] and the [New York City Human Rights Law],” wrote U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel.
Castel noted that despite several recent amendments to the New York City Human Rights law, unpaid interns are still not explicitly covered. But that may not be the case for long. In response to the judge’s ruling, city council member Gale Brewer announced she would propose legislation to extend harassment protections to unpaid interns.
“As we have seen with a number of recent cases, interns are ripe for exploitation from their superiors,” council member Brewer said in an emailed statement. “We need to ensure that every person in the city of New York is offered the full protections of our Human Rights Law.”
Public advocate and mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio has also voiced support for the proposal.
“No one should ever be denied protection against sexual harassment in the workplace. Period,” de Blasio told the New York Daily News.
New York State Assembly members Joe Borelli and Linda Rosenthal said they will introduce legislation to address the issue on a state level.
Brewer’s office said they weren’t aware of the loophole until the recent court decision.
“It takes a shocking opinion like this to catalyze some action,” said Wang’s lawyer Lynne Bernabei.
Wang interned in the Hong Kong-based media company’s New York office from December 2009 to January 2010, while getting her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University. Bernabei said Wang was doing much of the same work as Phoenix’s paid journalists, including on-air reporting.
Wang alleged that her boss Zhengzhu Liu lured her to his hotel room under the pretense of discussing her job performance and then groped her. According to the complaint, he later invited Wang to Atlantic City “to discuss job opportunities.” When she refused to go, Liu allegedly dropped all interest in hiring her, “in clear retaliation for her refusing his sexual advances.”
Wang is just one of many female employees and interns who say they were sexually harassed or assaulted by Liu. Another complaint filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., alleged that for eight years, “Mr. Liu intentionally preyed on the most vulnerable employees at Phoenix, primarily those who were just beginning their careers in America or were looking to advance at Phoenix as interns.”
Phoenix Television could not be reached for comment. In a statement sent to Mother Jones in response to the D.C. lawsuit, Phoenix Television said it doesn’t tolerate “discrimination, sexual harassment, or retaliation in its workplace."
We’ve reported before how unpaid interns in many areas of the country aren’t protected from harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Lawmakers in Oregon and Washington D.C. have passed legislation to close the loophole, allowing complaints like the Phoenix case to proceed where they may be otherwise dismissed.
Both policies extend discrimination and harassment protections to unpaid interns, but do not address questions about pay. Brewer’s proposal would follow a similar model.
Brewer said unpaid interns may be especially vulnerable to harassment. “By their very nature, unpaid interns are less likely to have prior work experience,” Brewer said. “As they often take on internships in an effort to get a foot in the door, they are less likely to report offensive behavior.”
Women are more likely than men to face sexual harassment at work. Women filed about 8 of every 10 sexual harassment claims made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2012. And according to a study by Intern Bridge, women are significantly more likely than men to be in an unpaid internship.
“The fact that there’s no legislation to protect them...encourages people like Liu to harass these women,” Bernabei said. “They have no accountability, and companies know they don’t have to take action when they learn about it.”