The Chicago Employment Law Blog

Can Unpaid Interns Sue for Harassment, Discrimination?

Let's face it, interns have it rough. When they're not overworked and underpaid, they're battling the "casting couch" and enduring crude jokes -- sadly, with little to no legal recourse available.

When unpaid internships take an abusive turn, some interns have sued their employers, as Mother Jones recently reported. But because of how state and federal employment laws are written, most cases don't get very far in court.

What about in Illinois? Can unpaid interns sue for harassment or discrimination in Chi-town?

Interns Under Federal Law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the federal employment discrimination law, defines an employee as "an individual who is employed by an employer."

The laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, including the Civil Rights Act, don't cover interns unless they receive "significant remuneration."

That essentially means unpaid interns who aren't misclassified employees entitled to compensation are generally out of luck.

By contrast, if interns are considered employees under the law, the employer must extend to the interns the same legal protections as other employees, such as nondiscriminatory treatment, right to sue for harassment, and eligibility for workers' compensation.

Interns Under Illinois Employment Law

Sadly, Illinois follows in step with federal law and also offers virtually no workplace protections to unpaid interns.

In fact, as of June, Oregon is the first (and only) state to implement such protections. Oregon's new law grants unpaid interns legal recourse for workplace violations including sexual harassment, unlawful discrimination -- based on race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or age -- and retaliation for whistle-blowing.

That being said, don't get complacent and resign yourself to life on the "casting couch." For starters, look into company policies that may broaden your workplace protections.

Need More Help?

If you're an intern at the bottom of the totem pole in our shark-eat-shark capitalist society and you have a potential employment issue, you may want to speak with an experienced employment lawyer.

After all, every situation is different and every now and then, small fries have (a few) legal rights, too.

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