Working conditions of interns have been the focus of a series of unpaid wage actions in New York City and elsewhere. In one noteworthy case that recently settled, former interns sued a prominent publisher of several well-known magazines for unpaid wages and overtime. In another case, a federal district court in New York dismissed sexual harassment claims brought under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) by an unpaid intern against a Chinese-language television broadcasting company because the intern was not considered an employee under the law.

Given the high profile nature of these suits, combined with the agenda of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), it comes as little surprise that the Mayor recently signed into law a bill that would cover interns under the NYCHRL. The bill (Local Law 9) was passed on March 26 by a unanimous Council and was signed into law by de Blasio on April 15. The provisions of the new law prohibit actual or perceived discrimination based on age, race, creed, color, national origin, gender, disability, marital status, partnership status, sexual orientation, alienage, or citizenship status. The NYCHRL also prevents discrimination against interns based on their or status as a victim of domestic violence, sex offenses, or stalking.

“Given the high profile nature of these suits, combined with the agenda of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), it comes as little surprise that the Mayor recently signed into law a bill that would cover interns under the NYCHRL.”

   
 

An intern is defined as “an individual who performs work for an employer on a temporary basis whose work: (a) provides training or supplements training given in an educational environment such that the employability of the individual performing the work may be enhanced; (b) provides experience for the benefit of the individual performing the work; and (c) is performed under the close supervision of existing staff.” The term includes paid and unpaid interns. The law goes into effect on June 16, 2014.

Local Law 9 alters the protections that unpaid interns generally receive under anti-discrimination laws. Unpaid interns are not currently protected against workplace harassment and discrimination under federal law. Coverage under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 hinges on a worker being legally defined as an employee, a status that generally requires that the worker be paid, although company policies and state and local laws — like Local Law 9 — could protect them.

In June 2013, Oregon passed a similar measure extending workplace protections against harassment and discrimination to unpaid interns. In January 2014, California Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner introduced legislation to protect unpaid interns in California; that bill is still in committee.

Based on the high profile nature of the recent intern lawsuits, it is likely that other states and municipalities will be considering similar legislation.