As internships become more important for students to stay competitive in the job market after college or complete a college requirement, a legislator is working to make sure those students are legally protected from workplace sexual harassment.
Currently in Michigan, unpaid interns have no legal support to fight against workplace discrimination — such as sexual harassment — because they are not technically employees and thus do not have the same workplace protections as their paid counterparts.
It’s called the “Intern Loophole,” and there have been widely publicized cases in cities, such as New York City, of workplace sexual harassment cases being dismissed by judges because the interns were not paid employees.
“We wanted to make sure we were taking a proactive step here in Michigan to try and provide interns and other unpaid workers with the same level of protections as everybody else in this state,” state Sen. David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights) said. “I think it’s an issue of treating everybody equally and it’s something that we want to get ahead of here in the state so it doesn’t negatively affect someone in the future.”
Oregon, California, Illinois, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York and Washington D.C. have adopted laws to protect unpaid interns.
Knezek introduced similar legislation last term as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives, which would have amended the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act to extend its protections to unpaid interns. However, at the time expanding Elliot-Larsen protections was a hot topic in regard to the LGBT community, so Knezek knew he had to find a different route to take.
The new legislation, which Knezek said he hopes to introduce within the next month, would amend the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act (MIOSHA) to extend its anti-discrimination protections to unpaid interns.
Knezek said they are trying to make the protections for unpaid interns as comprehensive as possible so interns are protected from the same workplace discrimination as everyone else.
“One of the ways we thought we would be able to do that is through Elliot-Larsen because there are specific mentions to race and religion and others,” Knezek said. “Through MIOSHA, it’s our belief, having worked with legal experts here in Lansing, that those same level of protections would be afforded to the interns if we are able to get this amendment, and if we are able to pass this into law.”
ASMSU’s vice president for Governmental Affairs Bryn Williams said this issue is simply a matter of updating Michigan’s laws to fit the changing culture and increasing prevalence of internships.
“This wasn’t an issue 20 years ago, because interns weren’t widely used 20 years ago,” Williams said. “Interns are wholly a new form of education that has really only come into fruition over the past decade to the extent we see it today.”
Knezek said at any given time there are more than 100 interns in the Michigan Senate and more than 300 interns in the Michigan House of Representatives.
“So when you start realizing just how large of a role and how critical of a role these individuals can play, just in state government, the potential for a problem to arise and the need for moving quickly certainly presents itself,” Knezek said.
Alumnus and founder of the Michigan Equal Protections for Interns Coalition Matt Marks said he got involved with this issue during his internship requirement which he completed in Lansing last year at a lobbying firm.
Marks said as internships become more necessary for students, an amendment like this becomes more critical.
“It’s not like someone sat down and said, ‘Let’s not protect unpaid interns.’ That’s not what happened, but internships are becoming more popular and more needed, and as they are and more people have taken them, there have been more cases, more opportunities for this type of thing to happen,” Marks said.
Marks said it is hard to put together data to show the severity of the issue because many interns might be more willing to deal with such abuse to better their chances of future employment.
“There have been people that have come up to me and in confidence have told me they’ve been subjected to this type of stuff, but they didn’t report it because they figured if they kept their mouth shut, they would have a better chance of getting a job — and frankly, I don’t blame them necessarily,” Marks said.