A big hole exists in employment law–in nearly every state, unpaid interns are not considered “employees” and are not protected under laws governed to protect employees in the workplace–most notably, sexual harassment protection.
One of the most recent examples was a Federal court case brought in New York by an intern, a graduate student who interned at the New York bureau of Phoenix Satellite Television. At the time of the alleged incident, she was 22, and she alleged that the station’s Washington, D.C. bureau chief sexually harassed her in his hotel room.
The judge ruled that the claims had to be dismissed, since she didn’t have the status of an employee.
The fact that interns are unpaid is not dispositive in all cases, but certainly lack of a salary, benefits or sick time are usually essential elements of state laws which define an “employee.”
Only one state, Oregon, has passed a law that extends such protections to all interns, whether they’re paid or not.