How is New York Protecting Unpaid Interns Against Discrimination

An unpaid intern position – the stepping stone to what ultimately could be your dream job. But before you even have the opportunity to interview for it, you’ll have to pay your dues, going through the trenches for a position, which is almost certainly not what you originally expected. Instead of doing substantive work that could further your experience in whichever field you’ve chosen, you’re making photocopies and fetching coffee for your boss. Fair, right? To add insult to injury, New York’s Courts have not recognized an unpaid intern’s civil rights that would protect against discrimination in the workplace.

Luckily, some legislators see this failure to protect unpaid interns as an injustice. A new bill recently introduced in New York is the latest sign of a nascent intern rights movement.  Democratic state lawmakers have proposed legislation that would give unpaid interns the same statutory protections from workplace discrimination afforded to employees.

The measure would make it an unlawful discriminatory practice to discriminate against an unpaid intern on the basis of an intern’s age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, marital status or domestic violence victim status – almost identical language to what is already provided for paid employees under the New York State Human Rights Law. It also has sexual harassment and whistleblower protections.

This proposal of legislation was sparked by a federal judge’s recent decision that dismissed a sexual harassment claim of an unpaid intern against a Chinese satellite news company. The Court held that unpaid interns aren’t employees under local human rights law and therefore the aggrieved unpaid intern lacked standing to sue. The Court also held that unpaid interns aren’t covered by federal civil rights law.

As of today, the state of Oregon is the only state in the country to recognize such a protection for unpaid interns. Hopefully, we can be next in line and the beginning of a trend of protecting all workers against discrimination.