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Workplace protections for unpaid interns in California

California has become the third state to enact a law prohibiting workplace sexual harassment of unpaid interns. Governor Jerry Brown recently signed the law, which stemmed from a New York federal court ruling that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act does not technically extend to unpaid interns. New York has since enacted a law against workplace sexual harassment of unpaid interns, and Oregon and the District of Columbia have similar laws in place.

The law in California was first introduced as a bill shortly after the New York federal court ruled against a college student at Syracuse University. The student alleged that, while interning at a media company, she was sexually harassed, groped and kissed by her supervisor. The student said that when she refused her supervisor's advances, the supervisor retaliated against her. The state assembly member who introduced the bill in California said that interns and volunteers deserve the same workplace protections as do employees who are being paid for their work, and she noted that the willingness to forego a paycheck in lieu of experience should not require a person to give up his or her basic civil rights.

The California law provides specific protections for women, who, according to a 2012 survey, make up a large majority of the college students participating in unpaid internships. A 2008 survey found that half of all college students had participated in an unpaid internship by the time they graduated.

Unpaid interns may often feel like they must remain silent about any workplace misconduct in order to continue gaining what is considered to be valuable and necessary experience on a resume. Now that there are additional protections in place for interns with respect to sexual harassment, interns who feel they have experienced inappropriate sexual advances from their supervisors or employees may want to speak with an employment law attorney about whether a claim could be filed.

Source: NBC Bay Area, "Bill Protecting Unpaid Interns From Sexual Harassment Signed by Gov. Brown", September 15, 2014

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