Intern Labor Rights Response to NY City Council Amendment to Protect Interns from Sexual Harassment and Discrimination

On March 17, 2014, the New York City Council’s Committee on Civil Rights held a hearing to discuss and invite public comment on bill Intro 173-A, introduced by Council Member James Vacca and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, which aims to extend to unpaid interns workplace protections against sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination under the New York City Human Rights Law. Activists from Intern Labor Rights (ILR) along with other advocates, interns and lawyers were present at the hearing and gave individual statements regarding the proposed legislation, urging the Council to use broader language than in the original draft. Yesterday, March 26, the Council passed the bill, without using the broader language suggested by ILR and those sharing our concerns, which would have covered thousands more interns, volunteers, and others working without financial compensation in New York City. We urge Mayor de Blasio not to sign this bill into law, but rather to send it back to the Council for strengthening.

While Intern Labor Rights applauds the New York City Council for their efforts to address the precarious and unprotected position of interns in the workplace, we feel strongly that this law will not solve the issues it purports to address, specifically:

  • The new law would not extend protections to interns who do not fit the narrow definition of an “intern” that the Council included in this bill, something done nowhere else under the law. By defining interns in a manner that employers themselves do not adhere to, thousands of New York City interns will see no new protections through this bill. Once an internship arrangement fails one of the definitional terms (e.g., it is not temporary, not for the benefit of the intern, not supplementing training or education, not enhancing employability, not under close supervision), an intern might not be covered.
  • Over 30 class action, state and federal lawsuits have been filed over work done by New York City interns claiming that their employers failed to adhere the very same kinds of conditions that the Council’s bill would require claimants to prove did not exist before these new protections would apply. With this bill, a harassed intern would be forced to make a tough choice: either prove they are covered by this new protection (by effectively demonstrating that they are not an employee, thus foregoing any potential wage and hour claims), or prove first that they are an employee due wages and then subsequently prove they were harassed in violation of their already-existing rights as an employee. This would be a complex, costly, time-consuming path to justice; furthermore, it already exists as a theoretical protection but has never even been attempted, let alone successfully litigated.

In short, this places far too heavy a burden on unpaid interns who find themselves harassed or otherwise discriminated against at their workplaces. In such vulnerable circumstances a victim’s rights should be clear, not confusing. We therefore propose that Mayor de Blasio veto this bill and instead urge the Council to pass a new bill with the following language:

  • Section 1.  Section 8-102 of chapter one of title eight of the administrative code of the city of New York is amended by adding new subdivisions 28 and 29 to read as follows:
  • 28. For purposes of section 8-107, and section 8-107.1 of this title, an individual participating in an internship or training program, or working as a volunteer is considered to be a “person” as defined in subdivision 1 of this section.
  • 29. For purposes of section 8-107, and section 8-107.1 of this title, the definition of “person” as defined in subdivision 1 of this section includes individuals who work without financial compensation.

Being protected from sexual harassment and discrimination is a human right, and should be written into law in a manner that applies to everyone. We urge Mayor de Blasio and the City Council to push further in their efforts to protect interns in the workplace.

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