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Oct 10

Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television US, Inc.: Unpaid Interns Are Not Employees

Unpaid interns are filling the court system. Many wage and hour cases have been heard by courts (more are upcoming) but very recently a more disturbing trend has emerged. A federal district court in New York ruled last week that unpaid interns are not “employees” and thus are not able to recover for sexual harassment under New York City’s Human Rights Laws (NYCHRL).

In the case of Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television US, Inc., the Southern District of New York threw out the hostile work environment discrimination claims of Lehuan Wang, a broadcast journalism intern from Syracuse University. Ms. Wang alleged that her supervisor engaged in inappropriate conversations, including inviting her to his hotel room where he touched her and tried to kiss her. Ms. Wang also alleged that she had been discussing permanent employment with the supervisor, and after this incident, the supervisor was no longer interested in hiring her. Ms. Wang is a Chinese citizen and would have required Phoenix to sponsor her work visa.

Though the plaintiff argued she qualified as an employee under the NYCHRL even though she was unpaid, the court disagreed. The court found that the NYCHRL does not extend its protections to unpaid interns. The Court stated that an employment relationship is an essential condition of this claim and because Ms. Wang was not compensated this relationship did not exist. Despite this unfavorable ruling, Ms. Wang was able to maintain her failure to hire complaint under city and state Human Rights Laws.

This case is an interesting example of the predicament employer’s (and employee’s) may face because of an unpaid internship. Although the court did not extend the definition of “employee” under the NYCHRL, employers and employees alike should be aware of the recent ruling. A link to the full decision in Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television US, Inc. is available here.

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