Why it matters: Joining a growing number of states, California has enacted a new law that provides employment protections to unpaid interns. In late September, Governor Jerry Brown made California the fourth state in the country (and fifth jurisdiction, including Washington, D.C.) by banning sexual harassment and discrimination against unpaid interns in the workplace. The statute extends California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act not only to unpaid interns but to volunteers and individuals in apprenticeship training programs as well. Oregon was the first state to enact such protections in 2013, followed by Illinois and New York this summer. With the passage of California’s law – and similar legislation being considered in states such as Michigan – employers need to be cognizant of the growing trend to extend the protections of employment laws to unpaid interns.

Detailed Discussion

The legal status of unpaid interns is a hot topic in the workplace, with class action lawsuits filed against employers across the country seeking unpaid wages or arguing that interns are protected by employment laws such as Title VII.

Some states have decided to address the matter by passing legislation bringing unpaid interns within the scope of existing employment laws. Oregon became the first state to pass a bill in 2013, followed by Washington, D.C. and over the summer Illinois and New York (see here).

In September, California followed suit.

Previously the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) protected the following classifications: race, religious creed, religious observance, color, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, national origin, ancestry, marital status, medical condition as defined by applicable state law, disability, generic information, military service, military and veteran status, pregnancy, and childbirth and related medical conditions.

AB 1443 added unpaid interns, volunteers, and individuals in apprenticeship training programs to the list.

As of January 1, 2015, it will be considered an unlawful employment practice to discriminate against or to harass an unpaid intern or volunteer on the basis of any legally protected classification unless an exception applies, such as a bona fide occupational qualification.

To read the new law, click here.