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New Legislation Protects Unpaid Interns in New York State From Discrimination

August 4, 2014

Last week, New York State became the fourth jurisdiction to outlaw discriminatory employment practices against internship applicants and unpaid interns.  By amending New York Human Rights Law, the Act, signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, prevents employers from harassing, discriminating, and retaliating against interns, even if their positions are unpaid.

The new legislation is the result of a 2013 case in which federal District Judge Kevin Castel dismissed an unpaid intern’s sexual harassment claim, on the grounds that the state’s anti-discrimination statues only extend coverage to employees who receive compensation. Following this decision, State Senator Liz Krueger introduced the bill, which gives interns the same legal protection from employment discrimination and harassment as paid employees.  Effective immediately, employers cannot discriminate against interns during the hiring process or throughout the course of employment, based on the interns’ age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, marital status, domestic violence victim status, or pregnancy.  New York State is the fourth jurisdiction to extend this type of protection to unpaid interns, joining Oregon, Washington D.C., and New York City.

While the new law does not mean that employers are legally obligated to pay an intern wages, compliance with the revised anti-discrimination statues is crucial to New York companies’ business operations.  Employers who offer unpaid internships should consult with counsel on revising their anti-discrimination policies to explicitly include protection for interns.  Comprehensive anti-harassment training should be conducted, and any complaints made by interns should be investigated and handled in the same manner as complaints filed by paid employees.  Finally, employers should provide notice of these important changes to human resources, hiring departments, and managers.

If you have questions about the structure of your company’s unpaid labor program, or on how to revise your anti-discrimination policy in compliance with the new legislation, please call our office at 716-636-7600.