Interns Lack Civil Rights Protections at Workplace

City Council drafting amendment to fix omission
March 18, 2014 Updated: March 19, 2014

NEW YORK—Thousands upon thousands of New York City interns have no federal or local civil rights, according to a recent state court ruling.

Internships are meant to provide interns with industry exposure and job prospects, but in the past few years there have been a flurry of lawsuits filed by interns against their employers for discriminatory practices. 

The story of the overworked and under-appreciated intern is a familiar one. An intern’s vulnerability in the workplace took a more serious turn last year when a federal judge dismissed the case of an unpaid intern who claimed that she was sexually harassed at her company, Phoenix Satellite Television. 

The court found she was not an employee because she was not paid, and therefore could not bring an employee discrimination claim forward. 

Currently, interns are not viewed as being covered by New York City’s Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) and thus are not protected from discrimination or harassment.

Proposed Amendment

“The hole in this law is so big you could drive a freight truck through it,” said council member James Vacca, who is introducing legislation to curb intern discrimination.

“Interns can be vulnerable, if not more vulnerable, to harassment than any other employee and this decision drove that possibility home,” Vacca said. “No employee, paid or unpaid, should have to fear that they’re not equally protected by the law if they are subjected to a hostile work environment.” 

The bill will amend NYCHRL to protect interns, paid or not, from discrimination on the basis of age, race, gender, and disability. 

The Commission on Human Rights (CHR), which files such complaints, currently is unable to do anything if an intern comes to them with a complaint. 

Clifford Mulqueen with CHR testified at a City Council hearing and said the legislation effectively made interns employees, extending all employee discrimination protections to interns.

The term “intern” has yet to be defined to include them in the legislation. Language in the bill currently makes the intern responsible to prove that he or she is, in fact, an intern and not an employee–a burden placed on the wrong party, according to supporters of the proposed legislation.

More Changes Needed

“The proposed amendment drafted would achieve only a small part of its purpose, because it would exclude a large number of interns from protection,” said Rachel Bien, Partner at Outten & Golden LLP.

The Council currently defines the term “intern” as “an individual who performs work for an employer for the purpose of training so long as the individual is not entitled to wages for the work performed and the work performed supplements academic training, benefits the individual performing the work, does not displace regular employees, and is performed under supervision.” 

“Many interns do displace regular employees, do not work under close supervision, and do perform work that benefits the employer,” Bien said. “The proposed amendment would not protect these interns, even though they are among the interns the Council seeks to protect.” 

In addition, the current amendment does not include volunteers, who are also vulnerable to discrimination. Those who testified called for the amendment to use broader terms, simply including “individuals participating in an internship or training program, or working as a volunteer,” and “individuals who work without compensation.” 

The legislation is currently being examined by the City Council committee on civil rights.

Yi Yang is a special correspondent in New York.