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Congress may protect interns from sexual harassment

California workers may be surprised to learn that many of the nation's unpaid interns have no legal protections against workplace sexual harassment because of a federal loophole. However, Congress may finally be making moves to address the issue.

The reason that many interns are left vulnerable to harassment while at work is because the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which contains provisions that protect against sexual, racial, age and disability discrimination, only extends to paid employees. This means that unpaid interns have no right to sue supervisors for sexual and other forms of harassment in many states. Fortunately, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have all passed laws that protect interns from workplace harassment. As for interns working in unprotected areas of the country, help may be on the way. Congress is considering a bill that would extend anti-harassment protections to all private sector interns. The House passed a limited version of the bill that protects federal interns in mid-January, and another bill is being considered for interns on Capitol Hill.

According to a 2010 study, 77 percent of unpaid interns are women, and the unequal power structure present in unpaid internships can leave interns vulnerable to potentially exploitative environments at work. While many worker advocates are praising the proposed federal legislation, others are concerned it doesn't do enough to protect interns who are earning college credits or who are service volunteers.

California employees or interns who have been the victims of unwanted sexual advances in the workplace may wish to discuss their legal rights with an attorney. Depending upon the circumstances, it may be appropriate to file a complaint with the state's Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

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