Oregon Senate OKs Workplace Protections for Interns

By LAUREN GAMBINO | June 6, 2013

The Oregon Legislature agreed Tuesday to extend workplace protections against harassment and discrimination to unpaid interns.

The Senate unanimously passed HB 2669, sending it to Gov. John Kitzhaber, who intends to sign it. The House unanimously passed the bill last month.

Under current law, unpaid interns in Oregon don’t have the same protections as employees.

“I remember clearly going through legislative orientation and being shocked to learn that unpaid interns were not covered by important civil rights protections,” Rep. Greg Matthews, D-Gresham, said in a statement. “Today’s vote will help ensure that unpaid interns can gain valuable work experience without facing a hostile work environment.”

The measure would give unpaid interns legal recourse against employers for workplace violations including sexual harassment; discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status or age; and retaliation for whistleblowing, among other things.

Internships are often a prerequisite for getting a job in today’s market, said Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who backed the bill. But interns who feel they’ve been mistreated currently don’t have many options available to hold their employer accountable, he said.

“We have had interns call looking for help in these kinds of situations and we had to tell them that the law did not protect them,” Avakian said.

Under the measure, an intern who alleges workplace harassment or discrimination, among other violations, can bring a lawsuit against the employer or file a formal complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Under current law, Oregon employers can be held liable for back pay if unpaid interns end up performing tasks that workers typically do.

Avakian said the idea for the bill came from a legislative intern at the Bureau of Labor and Industries. He said the intern discovered the loophole and brought it to his attention.

In 2011, a similar bill failed to gain traction. This year, however, the bill passed with broad support from civil rights groups and a student advocacy group.

“When organizations utilize interns to provide work experience, those organizations should provide a healthy workplace,” the American Association of University Women wrote in testimony. “By allowing interns to bring sexual harassment or civil rights complaints while they are performing work as if they were employees, the entire workforce is protected.”

The measure does not create an employment relationship and does not affect wage or workers’ compensation laws.

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