In 2010, unpaid intern Lihuan Wang was allegedly sexually harassed by her supervisor at Phoenix Satellite Television in New York City. She sued, but the case was thrown out of court because anti-harassment laws in the city only applied to paid employees.
In response, politicians at state and local levels cried out to extend the limits of protection to interns – and this week, councilors in New York City succeeded. But it’s likely that a similar bill will also pass at state level after New York Senator Liz Krueger put forth legislation in October last year.
“With the growing prevalence of unpaid internships and the extreme pressure on young people to build up resumes and references in a tough economy, the law needs to change to protect this extremely vulnerable class of workers,” Sen. Krueger said at the time.
Oregon and the District of Columbia have also passed laws to extend anti-harassment and anti-discrimination protections to unpaid interns. If the New York state law passes, it is likely to mirror the protections offered to interns in Oregon.
Essentially this means that employers need to consider their interns as having similar legal protections as regular employees, particularly in regards to discrimination, harassment and privacy invasions. However, the laws do not change the employee relationship, and the interns remain unpaid if the employer so desires.
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The actions of one New York boss have made interns even more risky for New York employers now that the council has responded to scandal with legislation.