There are two trends that continue to gain steam in the employment law world: an increase in employee protections by the new Mayor De Blasio administration in New York City, and an increase in employment law claims made by interns. Both trends have come together in a new law affecting New York City employers beginning on June 14, 2014.

Employers have no doubt read and heard about recent lawsuits and appeals (in New York and elsewhere) over whether interns are properly classified as non-employees, and thus do not have to be paid according to federal, state and local wage and hour laws. Now, New York City has become one of the first municipalities to include interns (paid and unpaid) within the protections of its local anti-discrimination law.

Passed unanimously by the New York City Council on March 26, 2014, and signed into law by Mayor De Blasio on April 15, 2014, the amendment to the New York City Human Rights Law (Administrative Code) is broad in intent, yet relatively terse in its language: “The provisions of this chapter relating to employees shall apply to interns.”

In turn, an intern is defined to mean an “individual who performs work for an employer on a temporary basis whose work:

  1.  provides training or supplements training given in an educational environment such that the employability of the individual performing the work may be enhanced;
  2.  provides experience for the benefit of the individual performing the work; and
  3.  is performed under the close supervision of existing staff.”

This definition of intern tracks somewhat, though not precisely, all of the factors historically used to determine intern status for wage and hour purposes. Nevertheless, the amendment expressly states that interns are protected under the New York City Human Rights Law “without regard to whether the employer pays them a salary or wage.” The legislation comes on the heels of a federal court decision late last year, which dismissed a discrimination claim under the New York City Human Rights Law on the basis that the plaintiff intern was not a covered employee under the law.

It is critical that employers with operations in New York City consider the following take-aways:

  1. Make sure you (continue to) properly classify workers as employees or unpaid interns under the appropriate analysis for wage and hour purposes.
  2. Make sure you (now) update your policies, practices and training to include interns when it comes to issues addressing discrimination, harassment, retaliation and disability/religious accommodation.
  3. Make sure you keep your eyes and ears open, as we have not seen and heard the last of the New York City legislation aimed at increasing and broadening employee rights in the workplace.