Unpaid and sexually harassed: The latest intern injustice

A troubling ruling declares that unpaid workers can't be discriminated against

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published October 9, 2013 9:18PM (EDT)

       (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-281914p1.html'>Ydefinitel</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(Ydefinitel via Shutterstock)

Hey there, exploitative workplace overlords! In case you needed another reason to use interns instead of actual paid employees, here's another perk: You can sexually harass the living daylights out of them. As Businessweek reported Tuesday, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has ruled a former unpaid intern at the New York bureau of Phoenix Satellite Television cannot bring a sexual harassment claim under the New York City Human Rights Law – because she wasn't a paid employee.

Lihuan Wang filed her suit two years ago, claiming that the harassment took place in 2010, while she was interning at the company as a graduate student. She reported that her supervisor, Washington bureau chief Liu Zhengzhu, made sexually inappropriate comments about "the sex drives of black men" and that he lured her to his hotel room, where he "held her for about five seconds, tried to kiss her by force, and squeezed her buttocks." She further said that when she later tried to talk about job opportunities at the company, he "invited her to Atlantic City." Though she lost her case, Lihuan Wang is still proceeding with another suit, alleging that the company didn't hire her because she wouldn't submit to Zhengzhu's overtures. And she's currently working in Shanghai as a news anchor and reporter. Meanwhile, CNN reports that "According to the ruling and a lawyer for Phoenix Satellite, Liu was terminated from his job once the company investigated the allegations."

It's discouraging – and ridiculous – that little has changed since 1994, when nursing student Bridget O'Connor lost her sexual harassment suit against the psychiatric hospital where she interned. Only Oregon currently offers legal protection from sexual harassment to unpaid interns – and Oregon only passed the law in June. In his ruling in Wang's case, Judge Kevin Castel declared that "it is uncontested that Wang received no remuneration for her services. New York City's Human Rights Law's protection of employees does not extend to unpaid interns." And he says, "An 'employer' logically cannot discriminate against a person in the 'conditions or privileges of employment' if no employment relationship exists." In other words, it wasn't a job so it doesn't even matter if it happened or not, you're not protected!

But while the outcome of the case is anything but satisfying for Lihuan Wang, this is hardly the end of the story for Phoenix Satellite, or at least one former paid employee. As Mother Jones first noted in August, the company still faces a slew of other allegations regarding Liu Zhengzhu. A former employee has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that "Liu unexpectedly showed up at her apartment when her fiancé wasn't home, forced his way through the door, and unzipped his pants" and that "he only stopped when she was able to make a racket, spooking him." And two other former job applicants told Mother Jones they'd had similar incidents with him, including one who claims he "pushed her down on the bed and began playing with his penis in front of her." Too bad she was apparently never hired. Then she might have been able to say she'd been harassed.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Interns Sexism Sexual Harassment Work