Until recently, only Washington, D.C., and Oregon gave unpaid interns the right to sue over sexual harassment. Under federal law, only workers classified as “employees” are protected from sexual harassment in the workplace, and unpaid interns have historically not been given the “employee” designation. States, however, can pass their own laws to protect unpaid workers.
Now New York has joined Oregon and Washington, D.C., since Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that prohibits sexual harassment of interns who work without pay. The new law also gives unpaid interns the right to sue if they have been sexually harassed. New York City had already provided unpaid interns with some protections against discrimination and harassment, and the state law is aimed at broadening those protections.
In the city’s law, the definition of “unpaid intern” is quite narrow. Intern-labor activists have pointed out that many interns who work without pay would be categorized outside of the legal definition and thus have no protections against sexual harassment and discrimination. For example, the city law requires that interns show they were employed “under close supervision of existing staff” and did “not replace regular employees.”
A problem arises when a sexually harassed intern unknowingly replaces a regular employee or ends up working for a company that doesn’t supervise its interns. An intern working under these conditions could still be sexually harassed, though the city law wouldn’t offer any protection.
The state law is like the one in Oregon and provides unpaid interns the same civil rights afforded to paid interns.
Our sexual harassment page has more on your rights as a worker.
Source: Bloomberg Businessweek, “New York’s Unpaid Interns Can Now Sue For Sexual Harassment,” Josh Eidelson, July 23, 2014