A D.C. City Council member and GW professor is trying to alter a local law that prohibits unpaid interns from suing their employers.
Last year, a college student filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against her employer in the District, which prompted a judge to rule that unpaid interns did not have the legal basis to file a sexual harassment suit against their employers. D.C. City Council member and GW Law School professor Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) has introduced a bill to close the loophole that barred the student from pursuing her claim.
The judge cited the D.C. Human Rights Act in the ruling, since the DCHRA’s wording omits unpaid interns from the definition of an employee. Cheh’s bill aims to change that.
“The bill is fairly straightforward; it simply adds unpaid interns to the definition of an employee,” Cheh said. “I can’t imagine anyone who would oppose that.”
Cheh presented the bill to the City Council last Tuesday. She said she was shocked to hear of the wording of the law, which bars uncompensated employees from having the same protections as paid employees.
“We’re the intern capital of the world. The recent trend of unpaid internships has become so commonplace that there are hordes of our students working as unpaid interns,” Cheh said. “The idea that they’re unprotected against abusive behavior is unacceptable.”
Cheh’s bill is a response to the case Evans v. The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, which was filed by a New Jersey college student who interned at the Center for Integrative Body Therapies.
The student alleged that a chiropractor at the office engaged in inappropriate and offensive behavior, including sexual advances and unwanted physical contact, according to court documents.
Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle, of D.C.’s federal court, ruled in November against the student, marking the first decision on an intern’s rights under the act.
In her decision, Huvelle wrote that the DCHRA’s definition of an employer, which is “any person who, for compensation, employs an individual,” excluded the plaintiff.
The truth of the intern’s claims was not a component of the decision. Though the sexual harassment case was dismissed, a battery charge is pending.
“That case called my attention to the issue. I found the human rights aspect very distressing. When I found out, I said, ‘That isn’t right,’ ” Cheh said. “The judge was correct in her interpretation, but the law must be fixed.”
Cheh’s bill was referred to a committee headed by Councilwoman Yvette Alexander, who co-introduced the bill. Though it will take a minimum of two to three months to pass through hearings, readings and votes, Cheh believes it will move quickly based on the nature of the issue.
“It was just a matter of oversight. People weren’t thinking of the workplace dynamic outside of the regular employer-employee relationship. But interns could even be seen as more vulnerable than regular employees because they’re just starting out,” Cheh said. “It’s plain and obvious. They have to be included.”
This article appeared in the January 12, 2009 issue of the Hatchet.