Business Litigation Alert: "Unpaid Interns and Employee Rights"

Shifting Regulations Expand Rights for Unpaid Workers

Unpaid internships have historically been a rite of passage for college students and young professionals. In the past, unpaid interns had little legal protection against discrimination or harassment. In fact, last year, a New York court found that interns and unpaid workers were offered no legal protection from sexual harassment in the workplace.

But now, a New York City Councilman has successfully amended the NYC Human Rights Law to extend to interns some of the same rights given to paid workers, including protection against sexual harassment and discrimination based on race, religion, and sexual orientation. Similar laws are in effect in Oregon and Washington D.C.

In California, comparable legislation has been introduced but the bill is still in committee.

In order for your company to protect itself as these rules develop, common sense should prevail. 

  1. As there is currently no federal law on this issue, and state laws vary widely, make sure you fully understand your state’s laws regarding protections for unpaid interns and other unpaid workers. 
  2. Institute policies and procedures regarding unpaid interns based on state laws. Monitor legislative and legal developments to ensure that those policies are up to date. 
  3. Ensure that any employees who supervise or work with unpaid interns are fully educated on your policies as well as state laws.

Ultimately, whether paid or unpaid, in New York or Texas, policies regarding the treatment of employees should be equal across the board in order to avoid legal pitfalls.

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