On July 22, 2014, Governor Cuomo signed a bill that amends the New York Human Rights Law by adding a new Section 296-c entitled, “Unlawful discriminatory practices relating to interns.” The amendment prohibits employers from discriminating against unpaid interns and prospective interns on the basis of age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, marital status, or domestic violence victim status, with respect to hiring, discharge, and other terms and conditions of employment. The amendment further prohibits employers from retaliating against unpaid interns who oppose practices forbidden under the Human Rights Law or who file a complaint, testify, or assist in a proceeding brought under the Human Rights Law. The amendment also makes it unlawful for employers to compel an intern who is pregnant to take a leave of absence, unless the pregnancy prevents the intern from performing the functions of the internship in a reasonable manner. The amendment also prohibits employers from subjecting interns to sexual harassment or any other type of harassment based on a protected category.
This legislation was introduced following a 2013 case in which the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York dismissed a sexual harassment claim asserted by an unpaid intern who alleged that her boss had groped her and tried to kiss her. In that decision, the Court was bound by the language of the statute that existed at that time and the court decisions interpreting that language, which provided that the Human Rights Law only applied to paid employees and did not apply to unpaid interns. The purpose of the legislation is to give unpaid interns the same right to be free from workplace discrimination and harassment as paid employees.
Employers who have unpaid interns or expect to have unpaid interns in the future should consider revising their anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies to explicitly provide that discrimination and harassment against interns will not be tolerated, and that complaints made by interns regarding alleged unlawful harassment will be investigated in the same manner as complaints made by employees. In addition, as we noted in a 2010 blog post, employers should also make sure that unpaid interns truly qualify as unpaid interns, and would not be considered “employees” who are entitled to the minimum wage and overtime protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York wage and hour laws.