By Elizabeth Regan
A bill from Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, aims to protect unpaid interns from workplace harassment, discrimination, and retaliation by classifying them as employees.
Looney cited the unprotected population of unpaid interns as among the most vulnerable to discrimination and harassment.
“Interns seek to make good impressions in the hopes of being hired permanently, network with colleagues, and receive good references for other job applications. This creates an environment where interns can be subject to exploitation,” Looney said in a release. “Everyone in a workplace should feel safe and protected. This proposal will go a long way in preventing the exploitation of interns by clarifying that harassment and discrimination against interns is illegal.”
The Labor and Public Employees Committee drafted the proposal as a committee bill Thursday.
A public hearing held Tuesday included written testimony from Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, who brought up a New York case in which an unpaid intern filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against a supervisor. The court ruled she had no grounds to sue because she was not an employee, he said, prompting legislation in New York to extend sexual harassment protections to unpaid interns.
“I’m torn by the story: On one hand, it’s a great example of lawmakers hearing about a major problem and coming together to fix it,” Finch said. “On the other hand, it’s another example of our failing to address a problem until a high-profile example forces us to do so.”
Since then, New York has joined California and Oregon in enacting a statute to protect interns from harassment and discrimination, according to Looney. Illinois and Washington, D.C., have provisions protecting interns from workplace harassment, but not discrimination.
The Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities in its testimony proposed amending the definition of “employee” in the Human Rights and Opportunities section of state law to include unpaid interns.
The Permanent Commission on the Status of Women expressed willingness to work with the committee in drafting the wording of the legislation.
Looney said in his own testimony that the bill is intended to protect interns from harassment and discrimination, not to apply an expanded definition of the term “employee” across the board.
Laura Callachan, a first-year graduate student with the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work and an unpaid intern with the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, said she’s never been the victim of workplace discrimination or harassment — but she’s heard from unpaid interns who have.
“As an unpaid intern who is receiving school credit and, furthermore, as a person — I believe that I deserve equal protection under the law as paid interns,” she said in her testimony.
Jillian Gilchrist, director of public policy and communication with Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Service Inc., recommended the legislation also require sexual harassment training “because all employees, paid and unpaid, should know their rights and be able to identify harassment and discrimination.”