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New bill could add legal protections for Michigan interns

College students often become interns in Oakland County companies to fulfill a school requirement or to gain valuable experience. The students are just as vulnerable to workplace discrimination and sexual harassment as any other employee. But unlike other employees, many interns have no legal protections against this type of workplace behavior.

Six states and Washington D.C. have passed legislation specifically shielding interns from these unlawful practices. Michigan could join those ranks with passage of a bill recently introduced to the General Assembly.

Michigan employers are discouraged from discriminatory practices by state and federal laws forbidding unfair and unlawful treatment of workers. Federal anti-discrimination laws, administered and enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, apply to protected classes that do not include most college interns.

Some Michigan State University undergraduates claim they've been in uncomfortable situations during internships. Feelings of insignificance and the risk of losing an internship cause some students to keep quiet about sexual harassment or discrimination. Even when a student is assertive about these issues, complaints may reach a dead end because legal protections don't extend to unpaid interns.

Federal laws state interns who don't receive "substantial remuneration" for the work they do – in the form of pay, access to school or employer-provided certifications or benefits – are not included in a protected class. However, paid interns and unpaid apprentices have the same legal safeguards as protected job applicants and employees.

Under Michigan's proposed legislation, pay would no longer play a role in whether an intern is sheltered from inappropriate behaviors at work, like undesired sexual conduct. Sexual harassment doesn't have to be "hands-on" to be illegal. Misconduct also includes circulation of sexually explicit materials, sexual comments or innuendo that create a hostile workplace environment.

Employment attorneys help paid and unpaid employees file discrimination and harassment complaints. In some cases, legal actions may lead to compensation for damages.

Source: The State News, "ASMSU pushing for intern protection laws," Josh Bender, Sep. 16, 2015

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