Further extending the Illinois Human Rights Act’s already expansive protection of victims of sexual harassment, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn last month signed into law a bill amending the Act to protect unpaid interns against sexual harassment. The amendment becomes effective January 1, 2015.

The amendment, which applies only in the sexual harassment context, defines an “unpaid intern” as a person who (i) performs work for an employer with no promise of employment following the internship and (ii) has an agreement with the employer that the intern is not entitled to wages for the work performed for the employer. To qualify as an unpaid internship, the work performed must meet the following criteria:

  1. The work must supplement the educational environment in a way that might enhance the intern’s employability.
  2. The work must provide experience that benefits the intern.
  3. The unpaid intern must not perform work that necessitates that the employer’s regular employees be displaced.
  4. The work must be performed under close supervision.
  5. The unpaid intern’s work may not provide an immediate advantage to the employer, and may occasionally impede the employer’s operations.

The Act generally applies to employers with 15 or more employees. However, sexual harassment, along with disability discrimination, retaliation, and come January 1, 2015, pregnancy accommodation, is one of the categories of unlawful conduct specifically identified in the Act as applying to “any person employing one or more employees.” This means that an employer with just one employee is covered by the Act’s prohibitions against sexual harassment, disability discrimination, retaliation and very soon, pregnancy accommodation.

Best Practices

Given that virtually every Illinois employer is governed by the Act’s sexual harassment provisions, Illinois employers should take the following proactive steps:

Review the company’s harassment policies and internal complaint procedures to ensure that they are up to date and clear in covering unpaid interns. Train all of the company’s regular employees to understand that interns are protected from sexual harassment. Provide interns with copies of harassment policies and complaint procedures when the internship begins.

These steps are important both to prevent unlawful harassment in the workplace and to ensure that it is appropriately reported and addressed should it occur.