LANSING — State Rep. Robert Wittenberg (D-Huntington Woods) introduced legislation today that would ensure that all employees, whether permanent full-time workers or temporary unpaid interns, would be protected from discrimination and harassment in the state of Michigan.
“The #MeToo movement has changed the way we think and talk about sexual harassment and sexual assault. The Larry Nassar case revealed that the institutions that are supposed to protect our young people from sexual predators have failed them — not just in our universities, but in our workplaces and in our communities,” said Rep. Wittenberg. “When young people take an unpaid internship, they have every right to believe that they will be protected against sexual harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and it’s time for that to change.”
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.
“Interns who work with us in the Legislature should have the same legal protections as any other employee,” Rep. Wittenberg said. “If someone is being sexually harassed in the workplace, their ability to seek justice shouldn’t depend on the size of their paycheck or whether they receive one at all — the very idea is offensive. Sexual harassment is just as harmful to an intern as it is to any employee, so both should have the same protection under the law.”
House Bill 5823 would amend the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act 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.
“To think that these students are not 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 working in a safe environment,” Rep. Wittenberg said.