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New federal law may extend protection to interns

Californians might not be aware that, while the state has laws protecting interns from sexual harassment at work, there has been no federal law that also protected interns. Congress is currently working to pass legislation that will extend the coverage of the laws to interns.

Interns have fallen into a loophole in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects employes from discrimination at work, including sexual harassment. Since interns are not paid for the work they do, they were not considered to be employees. Courts have thus interpreted the law as not applying to protect interns from sexual harassment on the job.

For private sector interns, the proposed legislation would apply if they are working voluntarily for an employer in order to receive educational credit or to learn how to do a certain trade. Some people are concerned that this definition may be too narrow and leave many people unprotected. Critics point to the fact that many people work as unpaid interns to try to get their foot in the door rather than to receive credit or learn a trade.

California has laws in place that close the loophole for victims of sexual harassment who are working as unpaid interns. A person who receives unwanted sexual advances from a supervisor or another worker should first go through the channels established at the job for reporting the sexual harassment. If the employer fails to address the problem or retaliates against the worker for making the complaint, the victim want to have the assistance of legal counsel in filing a claim with the applicable state agency.

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