New York State Human Rights Law to Protect Unpaid Interns

In July 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that amended the New York State Human Rights Law to protect unpaid interns throughout the State of New York and provide them with the same state law protections against discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace that paid employees are afforded.  The amended law took effect immediately.  Earlier in 2014, the New York City Council passed an amendment to the City’s Human Rights Law to extend its anti-discrimination and anti-harassment provisions to unpaid interns. The amendments of the New York City and New York State Human Rights Law to protect unpaid interns were inspired by a 2013 case in the Southern District of New York, in which an unpaid intern's claim for hostile work environment that was brought under the New York City Human Rights Law and New York State Human Rights Law was dismissed.  The claim was dismissed because the District Judge held that as an unpaid intern, the plaintiff did not meet the definition of “employee” and therefore was not covered by the provisions of either the New York City Human Rights Law or the New York State Human Rights Law.

Now that the amendments of the New York City and New York State Human Rights Law to protect unpaid interns are effective, employers who have unpaid interns might want to revise 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 paid employees.

The amendments also highlight the recent expansion of interns’ rights, including the limitations on an employer’s ability to classify individuals as interns rather than employees -- employers should make sure that unpaid interns truly qualify as unpaid interns, and are not actually “employees” who are entitled to the minimum wage and overtime protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York wage and hour laws.