On July 22, 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation giving interns in New York State protections from sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace similar to those given to regular workers. The amendment to the state’s Human Rights Law clarifies the status of interns in the workplace and likely heralds the spread of similar changes in other states and jurisdictions to extend such protections to the growing body of unpaid interns in the workforce.
The legislation stemmed from the story of an intern hired by Phoenix Satellite Television US Inc. who instituted a discrimination action that was ultimately dismissed on a technicality. The intern had alleged that a manager at the television company groped her and attempted to kiss her while she interned there. Her action was dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge who found that the law of the Second Circuit did not allow interns to proceed since they were unpaid workers. The law apparently held that unpaid workers are not employees under federal, state, or city law.
The new legislation will give a definition of what an internship is and will explicitly ban workplace sexual harassment of interns, granting them general workplace civil rights protection. This legislation is noted to be of growing prevalence due to the amount of unpaid interns in the workforce. The fact that the economy is tougher and more competitive, and there is an extreme amount of pressure on young workers to build up resumes, was the basis for creating a law to protect this vulnerable class.
In April of this year, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill amending the city’s Human Rights Law to protect interns. The amendment to the city law was introduced following the federal judge’s dismissal of the case brought against Phoenix Satellite in October 2013, but did not spread throughout the state so efforts were made for the state to afford protection to all young, unpaid workers. This new legislation, similar to legislation enacted in Oregon and Washington, D.C., reflects an emerging trend, as many are noting that the Phoenix Satellite decision will continue to influence other jurisdictions to enact similar legislation.
For more information about how this may impact your business, or if you have questions regarding updating your policies and procedures in light of this development, please contact: