In October 2013, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed the Plaintiff's claim of sexual harassment in Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television, Inc. The court found that since as an unpaid intern Ms. Wang was not paid by the defendant, she was therefore not an employee for purposes of the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) and thus not able to assert an actionable hostile work environment claim under the NYCHRL.
The District Judge's legal reasoning about the case might have been sound. However, the idea that unpaid interns, generally the least powerful people in their organizations, have no recourse in cases of discrimination or exploitation in virtue of being unpaid seems like exactly the kind of situation laws like the NYCHRL aim to prevent. Seeing that the existing law offered no recourse for people like Ms. Wang, the case became a catalyst for the New York City Council (NYCC) to change the law so it would encompass cases like hers by protecting unpaid interns from workplace discrimination and harassment. So on March 26, 2014, after defining "intern" broadly as "an individual who performs work for an employer on a temporary basis whose work: (a) provides training or supplements training given in an educational environment such that the employability of the individual performing the work may be enhanced; (b) provides experience for the benefit of the individual performing the work; and (c) is performed under the close supervision of existing staff. The term shall include such individuals without regard to whether the employer pays them a salary or wage," the NYCC unanimously voted to add the following wonderfully succinct passage to the NYCHRL: "The provisions of this chapter (of the administrative code of the City of New York) relating to employees shall apply to interns."
The NYCHRL now explicitly affords the same protections to interns and paid employees, protections from discrimination based on their age, race, national origin, gender, disability, or other protected characteristics. Companies will now also be required to make reasonable accommodations in certain circumstances, and to refrain from retaliatory responses to complaints by interns about discrimination.
Lawyers and law firms have now begun to warn companies that they should revisit their policies on discrimination and harassment, distribute such information about company policies to interns as well as employees, take steps to develop a business culture that reassures all employees that discrimination and harassment are not tolerated, and to verify that current interns are not subject to harassment. The Council members who voted for this change the NYCHRL will surely be gratified to learn that the need to comply with the new law is motivating companies to make such changes in an effort to comply and avoid future liability.
Before New York, Washington D.C., Oregon, and other state and local governments had enacted similar new laws. Another possible fortuitous consequence of the new law in New York is that it could add momentum to the movement of other state and local governments in the same direction.
If you are an unpaid intern and you believe your rights have been violated in the workplace, please contact The Harman Firm, P.C.