New York, NY- Last fall, a Manhattan judge ruled that an unpaid intern who was sexually harassed could not sue her boss because she was an unpaid employee and was not protected by the state’s discrimination laws. That judgment was met with outrage prompting the New York City Council to introduce a bill that will give unpaid interns protection from workplace discrimination.
The legislation was unanimously passed with a 50-0 vote and also protects interns from discrimination based on their race, religion, and sexual orientation.
“We had to close a loophole that was so big we could drive a truck through it,” said Councilman Jimmy Vacca (D-Bronx), according to the New York Daily News.
A similar bill was introduced to the state legislature but has been hung up so the New York City Council decided it was time to improve working conditions for interns.
The legislation was inspired by the case of Lihuan Wang, who worked as an unpaid broadcasting intern at Phoenix Satellite Television U.S. She alleged that after she was transferred to the Chinese broadcasting company’s New York office, her boss there began to sexually harass her.
In one incident, Wang’s boss lured her to a hotel room under false pretenses where he tried to kiss her and groped her buttocks. Wang’s complaint said she pushed him away and left the room. Later, when she inquired about job opportunities, Zhengzhu asked her to accompany him to Atlantic City.
Wang filed lawsuit against her for failing to hire her, alleging that she was denied a job because she refused to submit to his advances. Her boss, of course, denied the, saying that Wang never applied for a permanent position.
But last October, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that Wang could not file a formal sexual harassment suit since she was not technically employed with company. The court asserted that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not protect unpaid interns since they receive no remunerations such as health benefits or retirement pay from the company they work with.
Wang’s case got the attention of the national media and started a national discussion about the working conditions for unpaid interns. Some suggest they should be paid but others believe a change in the law is the best way to combat the problem.
Paying interns is one way to protect them from maltreatment, but that is unlikely to come to fruition. The other way would be to amend federal laws to include interns as a protected class, but with the current atmosphere in D.C. that wouldn’t be possible any time in the near future.
Currently, there are a handful of states, and now New York City, that offer interns the same protections against workplace discrimination as regular employees.
Interns who find themselves in a situation similar to Wang’s should consult with a sexual harassment attorney to determine if their anti-discrimination laws for interns in their state.