On August 25, 2014, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed  legislation  (House Bill  4157),  amending  the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA or Act) to extend the protections  of  the  Act  to  unpaid  interns.  Beginning January 1, 2015, unpaid interns in Illinois, meeting the definition of “employee” as set forth in the Act, will be  covered  under  the  Act’s  unlawful  discrimination protections.

Illinois is the third state to enact legislation extending discrimination protections to unpaid interns. In July 2014, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed similar legislation intended to extend to unpaid interns, the same civil rights protections afforded to paid interns. New York legislation, A 8201-A, amended the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) by adding section 296-c to provide antidiscrimination protections to unpaid interns. The New York state law, effective on July 22, 2014, was modeled after a 2013  Oregon law extending discrimination and harassment protections to interns. Washington, D.C., and New  York City also have similar protections in place for unpaid interns. As we previously reported, see NYC  Human Rights Law Now Covers Unpaid Interns,

New York City’s Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) was amended, effective in June 2014, to bar discrimination, harassment, and retaliation against interns because of any characteristic protected by the NYCHRL law.

Unpaid Intern Defined in IHRA

The IHRA now defines an “unpaid intern” as a person who performs work for an employer in circumstances under which the employer is not committed to hiring the individual at the conclusion of the intern’s tenure; the employer and the person performing the work agree that the person is not entitled to wages for the work performed; and the work performed meets the following:

  • supplements training that is given in an educational environment that may enhance the intern’s employability;
  • provides experience for the benefit of the person performing the work;
  • does not displace the employer’s regular employees;
  • is performed under the close supervision of existing staff; and
  • provides no immediate advantage to the employer providing the training and may occasionally impede the employer’s operations.

Illinois Employment Discrimination Protections

Under the IHRA, it is a civil rights violation for an employer to “refuse to hire, to segregate, or to act with respect to recruitment, hiring, promotion, renewal of employment, selection for training or apprenticeship, discharge, discipline, tenure or terms, privileges or conditions of employment on the basis on unlawful discrimination or citizenship status.” The Act defines “unlawful discrimination” as discrimination that is based on race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, sex, marital status, order of protection status, disability, military status, sexual orientation, or unfavorable discharge from military service. It is also a civil rights violation for an employer to restrict an employee from speaking in his or her native tongue in communications unrelated to the employee’s duties, except for slang, jargon, profanity, or vulgarity. In addition, the IHRA provides protections against, among other things, sexual harassment; discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions; and certain discriminatory immigration- related practices.

Employers (especially those having operations in Illinois, New York, Oregon, and/or Washington, D.C.) should ensure compliance and asses with counsel the structure, operation, and risks and rewards of unpaid intern programs. Employers should also consider updating training programs and equal employment opportunity policies to include the new local and state law protections for unpaid interns.