Bill offers sexual harassment protection for unpaid interns

Eleanor Dearman

In Texas, unpaid interns do not have legal protection against sexual harassment in the workplace.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) filed HB1151, which would work to provide unpaid interns with sexual harassment benefits equal to that of their paid counterparts.

The bill allows unpaid interns who face an “unwelcome sexual advance, a request for sexual favor, or any other physical conduct of sexual nature” to press charges with Texas Workforce Commission or internal resources, like any other employee.

After reading about a case in New York regarding an intern who was sexually harassed with no legal protections, Colleen Tran, communications director and policy analyst for Rep. Thompson, said she and the representative decided to look up unpaid intern rights in Texas. They found unpaid interns in Texas do not have rights set in the labor code against sexual harassment.

“If you’re an employee, and you’re sexually harassed, you have recourse,” Tran said. “You have options, a plan. You can do something about it. An intern, because you’re not an employee by definition standards — it didn’t seem right that you really didn’t have an option to do anything.”

Although the bill is aimed at protecting unpaid interns of all ages, Tran said it would especially apply to college students. She said the bill will give interns the peace of mind that they are protected in their workplace.

“If you’re going to work in a working environment, and you have to be an intern, you should be getting experience,” Tran said. “You should be working and not have to worry about [sexual harassment].”

Lauren Velez, communication studies and human relations senior, who has worked unpaid internships for the past two semesters, said she has not personally experienced sexual harassment but thinks the added precaution would benefit unpaid interns.

“I think, definitely, at a bigger company where I’m not going to know the name of every person in my office, I would definitely feel more comfortable knowing I have that protection,” Velez said.

Mehrzad Sabzevari, physical culture and sports sophomore and an unpaid film specialist intern for the University, said, although the protection is a step in the right direction, unpaid college interns might not feel comfortable speaking out about harassment because of fear of limiting future job opportunities.

“They need this internship to actually move forward with their career and job plan,” Sabzevari said. 

According to Jennifer Hammat, associate vice president and Title IX coordinator of University Compliance Services, it is the responsibility of the University and the business to protect student interns.

For University-placed internships, Hammat said students are encouraged to report any misconduct to the student’s college.  

“For programs that offer or require internships as part of the degree program, the students are instructed to report to their college any concerns of mistreatment, including sexual harassment, for reassignment or new placement,” Hammat said in an email.

If a sexual harassment case occurs, the college in question can decide to no longer place students in the internship involved and report the misconduct to the business’s Human Resources department. She said there is currently no set protocol for individual colleges to handle sexual harassment cases.

“Because field internships happen in a variety of settings and locations, in any number of programs, there currently isn’t a uniform method for remedy because the internship experiences vary so widely,” Hammat said in an email.