Protections for Interns Facing Discrimination

Protections for Interns Facing Discrimination

Interns’ Rights under Federal Law

In recent years, there has been an increase in litigation brought by interns against their presumed employers, not only relating to payment of wages but also, in some instances, claims of discrimination and harassment. As a result, both lawmakers and the media have been paying more attention to the relationship between companies and their unpaid interns.

Bills have been introduced in Congress that would explicitly prohibit employers from discriminating against unpaid interns and give the interns protections under Title VII. Despite the growing concern, it appears unlikely that any such bill will be enacted anytime soon.

Currently, whether unpaid interns and volunteers are provided coverage under Federal law is depends on whether the individual receives significant, non-wage remuneration in some form; such as a pension, group life insurance, worker’s compensation or access to professional certifications. As such, under Federal law paid interns may seek protection.

New York City Offers Unpaid Interns Additional Rights

Luckily, New York City offers protections for unpaid interns. On March 26, 2014, the New York City Council voted unanimously to pass legislation amending the New York City Human Rights Law (the “NYCHRL”) to provide that interns are protected from workplace discrimination and harassment under the NYCHRL. New York City is one of few cities to extend the same workplace protections against discrimination and harassment to interns—both paid and unpaid—as is provided to employees.

The Council passed this NYCHRL amendment in response to a recent 2013 federal lawsuit in which the court dismissed an unpaid intern’s sexual harassment claims because at the time, sexual harassment laws only applied to “employees,” excluding unpaid interns and volunteers.

In October 2013, Ms. Lihuan Wang sued his employer Phoenix Satellite Television, for sexual harassment while at an off-site event. While Wang had been working as an intern for Phoenix, her supervisor, Mr. Liu, sent out an email to his employees stating that he wanted to treat the team to lunch. After the lunch, many of the employees returned to work. However, Liu suggested that Wang go back to his hotel room with him because so he could drop off her stuff. Eager at the opportunity to further her career, acquiesced to her supervisors request. During the car ride, Want told Liu that he had known women who dated black men, and that most women couldn’t handle black men’s sex drive because black men could have sex multiple times a night. Once the two returned to Mr. Liu’s hotel room, Mr. Liu untied his tie, took off his shirt and forcefully kissed Wang and squeezed her butt. Wang eventually escaped and fled the hotel room.

Despite Wang having clearly suffered from sexual harassment, the Honorable P. Kevin Castel, of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, dismissed plaintiff Lihuan Wang’s claims of sexual harassment, finding that the NYCHRL’s protection of employees “[did] not extend to unpaid interns.”

The 2014 NYCHR amendment expands coverage  under the law to explicitly apply to interns, including unpaid interns. The amendment defines the term “intern” as the following:

“The term “intern” shall mean an individual who performs work for an employer for the purpose of training if:

(a) the individual works for a fixed period of time at the end of which there is no expectation of employment;

(b) the individual performing the work is not entitled to wages for the work performed; and

(c) the work performed: (i) supplements training given in an educational environment that may enhance the employability of the intern; (ii) provides experience for the benefit of the individual performing the work; (iii) does not displace regular employees; and (iv) is performed under the close supervision of existing staff.”

New York State Offers Unpaid Interns Additional Rights

Following New York City’s lead, New York State created similar protections under New York State Human Rights Law to encompass unpaid interns, in an amendment that went into effect on July 22, 2014. This amendment made it unlawful for employers to discriminate, harass, retaliate, or otherwise engage in unlawful employment practices against unpaid interns and applicants for internships. It also prohibits employers from engaging in any unwelcome “verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” directed toward an intern and extends protections to pregnant interns.

At the time of the amendment, New York State was one of four states to create such protections. As time goes on, hopefully more states will follow New York’s lead. The skilled New York City sexual harassment attorneys at the Derek Smith Law Group, PLLC, are at the forefront of sexual harassment and discrimination law. Working with our Philadelphia sexual harassment attorneys, the Derek Smith Law Group, PLLC has received some of the highest jury verdicts on behalf of our clients in history. If you feel you have been sexual harassed at work, even if you are only an intern, please give us a call, toll free, at 1877 4NYLAWS, for your free consultation.


Call today to schedule a FREE sexual harassment or employment discrimination legal Consultation in NY, NJ & PA with one of our top rated employment law or sexual harassment attorneys here at the Derek Smith Law Group. You can reach us online or by calling 877.469.5297. Our New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia labor & employment law attorneys handle a variety of cases involving sexual harassment, racial discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, and other employment-related claims. We serve clients throughout New York, including Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island. We also have offices in New Jersey and Philadelphia to serve you.

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