A New York federal district court ruled last week that an unpaid intern from China, Lihuan Wang, could not pursue a sexual harassment claim under New York human rights laws because she was not paid, and therefore not considered an employee. Most people are probably not aware that most every employment law statute only governs an "employee-employer" relationship and often times the focus of litigation may be whether this relationship exists. It's part of the reason there is the independent contractor label and the issue of potential employee misclassification.
Yahoo! Finance has a nice write-up of the court decision:
In a lawsuit, she said the station's Washington D.C. bureau chief Zhengzhu Liu sexually harassed her after luring her to his hotel room on the pretext that he wanted to talk about her job performance and the possibility of hiring her full time.
When the two were alone, Wang alleged that Liu threw his arms around the then 22-year-old intern, tried to kiss her and "squeezed her buttocks with his left hand." After she refused to let him go any further and left the hotel, she said Liu no longer expressed interest in permanently hiring her.
New York Judge Kevin Castel ruled that Wang can't assert these claims, because as an unpaid intern, she didn't have the status of an employee.
"It is uncontested that Wang received no remuneration for her services," Castel wrote. "New York City's Human Rights Law's protection of employees does not extend to unpaid interns."
The Yahoo! story also points out that only one state, Oregon, has broadened out the standards for harassment to protect unpaid interns. The state passed a law in June that extends such protections to all interns, whether they're paid or not.
It is possible Wang could have pursued her harasser in his individual capacity under common laws or any specific New York law fitting the facts but employers tend to have the bigger, deeper pockets making it impractical to bring such suits against individuals. However, if liability cannot be imputed upon the employer, then Wang, as an unpaid intern, unfortunately has to experience the harsh reality of the way employment laws are written currently.