Four jurisdictions in the United States have passed legislation to protect unpaid interns from discrimination in the workplace.
New York State recently enacted workplace protections for interns, making it unlawful for employers to discriminate, harass, retaliate, or otherwise engage in unlawful employment practices against applicants for unpaid internships and the interns that take the position. The state is the fourth jurisdiction to enact such legislation, following New York City, the state of Oregon, and Washington D.C. With the influx of unpaid interns into the workforce, more and more issues have cropped up regarding discriminatory practices that negatively affect such interns. Since they are unpaid, they are not "employees" and are not subject to the same rights and protections that prohibit discrimination against paid employees. This issue was further exacerbated by a 2013 ruling by federal District Judge Kevin Castel who held that unpaid interns/laborers are ineligible to bring claims of harassment or discrimination. After that ruling, New York State Senator Liz Krueger introduced the bill that is now signed into law, making unpaid and paid laborers equal with regard to their rights in the workplace. The Act defines intern as "a person who performs work for an employer for the purpose of training under the following circumstances:
1. The employer is not committed to hire the person performing the work at the conclusion of the training period
2. The employer and intern agree that the intern is not entitled to wages for the work performed
3. The work performed provides or supplements training that may enhance the employability of the intern, provides experience for the benefit of the intern, does not displace regular employees, and is performed under the close supervision of existing staff."
While the Act protects interns and applicants for internships from discrimination and harassment, the Act does not create an employer-employee relationship between the parties, nor does it grant the intern legal entitlement to earn wages. The new legislative acts to protect interns only apply in the four jurisdictions where they have already been enacted; most areas of the country remain without such legislation, but the trend seems to indicate that other jurisdictions will quickly follow suit.
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