Unpaid interns in Connecticut may soon have the same protection from workplace harassment as paid employees.
Within the past two years, four states — California, Illinois, Oregon and New York — have passed legislation that gives all unpaid interns the same rights as employees when it comes to protection from sexual harassment in the workplace. With a new bill proposed by state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, Connecticut is following suit by amending its general sexual harassment and workplace discrimination statutes to include unpaid interns.
Looney said interns are particularly susceptible to abuse in the workplace.
“They seek to make good impressions in the hopes of being hired permanently, network with colleagues and receive good references for other job applications,” he explained in a statement released last Tuesday. “This creates an environment where interns can be subject to exploitation.”
Currently, the Labor and Public Employees Committee, chaired by state Sen. Gary Holder Winfield and state Rep. Peter Tercyak, is hearing testimony for the bill. The committee heard testimony in favor of the bill last Thursday and will eventually vote to either advance the bill to the Senate floor, send it to another committee or reject it.
Adam Joseph, director of communications for the state Senate Democrats, said he is not aware of any opposition to the bill as of yet, referring to it as a “common sense step forward” in sexual harassment legislation.
Caroline Treiss, executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women — an arm of the Connecticut General Assembly—, will testify on behalf of the bill. She mirrored Looney’s belief that interns are particularly vulnerable to harassment, sexual and otherwise, in the workplace.
“The power differential between an intern and supervisor is significant — interns are trying to build a reputation, make a positive impression and leave the internship with a good reference for future employment opportunities — all of which can be exploited by unscrupulous supervisors wishing to take advantage of the situation,” she said in an email to the News.
Bridgeport, Connecticut Mayor Bill Finch testified before the committee at a public hearing last Tuesday. According to the mayor’s communications director Brett Broesder, Finch is passionate about ending intern harassment.
In his testimony, Finch spoke about a case where an unpaid female intern at a New York television network alleged that a supervisor had made unwanted, physical sexual advances. Instead of investigating the claims, a federal court in New York ruled in 2013 that she had no grounds to sue because she was not an employee under the law.
The story was widely publicized and served as the inspiration for the passage of a bill to extend sexual harassment protections to unpaid interns in the state of New York, Finch said.
In his testimony, Finch said he believed it was critical to immediately improve the rights of interns in the workplace.
“It’s terrible to think about, but tomorrow it could be our sons, daughters, granddaughters, grandsons, cousins, nieces or nephews,” he said.
Despite the lack of dissension to the bill, there has been some minor disagreement as to its exact wording. During the committee meeting on Thursday, representatives from the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities proposed adding to the bill a clause that classifies unpaid interns as employees.
However, Looney said in his own testimony that the bill is intended exclusively to give interns additional legal protection. Amending the definition of the word “employee” would have additional, potentially far-reaching legislative consequences, he said.