Top Democrats Introduce Bills to Protect Interns Against Sexual Harassment and Discrimination

Jul 28, 2015
Press Release

Top Democrats Introduce Bills to Protect Interns Against Sexual Harassment and Discrimination


Washington, DC (July 28, 2015) – Today, top Democrats in the House introduced three bills that would make it illegal for public and private sector employers to discriminate, sexually harass and retaliate against interns.

The three pieces of legislation, sponsored by Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, Bobby Scott, and Grace Meng, the Ranking Members of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Committee on Education and the Workforce, and the Small Business Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy and Trade, respectively, consist of the:

The measures would protect unpaid interns who work at federal agencies, in Congress, and with states and private sector entities. The bills would:

  •         Define “intern” as someone who performs uncompensated voluntary service in an agency to earn credit awarded by an educational institution or to learn a trade or occupation;
  •         Extend workplace protections against discrimination and harassment to unpaid interns; and
  •         Close existing loopholes that permit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin as prohibited by section 717 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; age as prohibited by Sections 12 and 15 of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967; and handicapping condition as prohibited in section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Presently, there are no federal laws or safeguards that protect unpaid interns against sexual harassment or discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, age, handicapping condition and other factors.

“It is unacceptable that employees and interns working right next to each other have different levels of protection against abuse,” said Ranking Member Cummings. “There should be no legal grey area when we are talking about preventing sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.”

“Internships are often the first real entry into a profession and onto a career path,” said Ranking Member Scott.  “The Unpaid Intern Protection Act would ensure that interns in the workplace are free from discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or disability as prohibited by the Civil Rights Act. This bill would extend these workplace protections to unpaid interns whose status, under current law, lack the protections provided by civil rights laws.” 

“Internships can be a wonderful opportunity to learn and gain valuable real world experience, and more and more businesses, organizations and government entities consider it a prerequisite to full-time employment,” said Ranking Member Meng. “But interns, most of whom are high school and college students, are not afforded the same federal workplace protections that cover employees. That is blatantly unfair and this loophole in the law must be changed. Nobody – from a junior intern to a senior executive – deserves to be harassed, discriminated or retaliated against at work. A negative experience like this can be devastating to young interns as they start their careers, and these types of incidents can have terrible impacts on their futures. From the halls of Congress to corporate boardrooms, an equal and hostile free work environment must be ensured for all.” 

Several legal cases have been dismissed because courts have concluded that unpaid interns are not “employees” covered by existing law.

For example, in the 1997 case of O’Connor v. Davis, an employee made unwanted sexual advances against an unpaid intern, calling her “Miss Sexual Harassment,” suggesting that she participate in an “orgy,” and making comments about lingerie. The court found that the plaintiff was not covered by existing law because she was not an employee.

The court concluded: “[I]t is for Congress, if it should choose to do so, and not this court, to provide a remedy under either Title VII or Title IX for plaintiffs in O’Connor’s position.” 

Although some interns do receive compensation and stipends, most are unpaid, and work in exchange for academic credit from their educational institution. 

114th Congress