Whether in college, transitioning from one career to another or just trying to get your foot in the door, the unpaid internship has become quite popular. These situations benefit the employer and the intern in that the employer receives free labor while the intern gains valuable experience in the industry they aspire to work in. Colleges and graduate schools push unpaid internships and some even require them before allowing students to graduate. Unfortunately, interns are often abused and are afraid to speak up because they do not want to ruin their chances of getting a job. New York State has now enacted a law that protects interns from these abuses.
Previous case law issued by a Federal District Court in 2013 made unpaid interns exempt from protections for on the job discrimination and harassment. The new legislation, actually an amendment to the New York State Human Rights Law, makes certain employment laws relating to discrimination, retaliation and harassment applicable to unpaid interns. This law overturns the previous case law and goes into effect immediately. The law specifically defines interns as unpaid individuals whom the employer is not required to hire after the internship, that are being closely supervised, do not replace regular employees and that are being trained to make them more employable in the future. It focuses on discrimination and sexual harassment against interns making these acts specifically illegal. It also makes it clear that even though these laws apply it does not mean that an employment relationship has been created. Although New York is not the first state to enact these types of laws, and New York City recently put a similar statute in place, the law will surely make the experience of an unpaid internship much more valuable to those who decide to participate in one in New York.
If you feel you are currently being discriminated against, harassed or retaliated against at your unpaid internship you need the advice of an experienced employment law attorney to navigate the new law and decide whether you have a claim. Call New York City attorney Thomas M. Lancia at (212)964-3157 for a consultation.