On Tuesday, April 15th, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio signed Intro 173-A into law, legislation that is claimed to protect unpaid interns from sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination in the workplace. According to Councilman James Vacca (D-Bronx), the bill’s sponsor, “The legislation was intended to put unpaid interns on equal footing with the paid employees they work with.” While this was a promising step towards addressing intern labor concerns, the bill’s current language lacks the inclusivity its proponents are celebrating. Specifically, it defines an intern as “an individual who performs work for an employer on a temporary basis whose work: (a) provides training or supplements training given in an educational environment such that the employability of the individual performing the work may be enhanced; (b) provides experience for the benefit of the individual performing the work; and (c) is performed under the close supervision of existing staff.” A rising volume of lawsuits indicates that a number of existing internships likely may not meet these qualifications.
Given these shortfalls, members of Intern Labor Rights attended a public hearing at City Hall to voice concerns and proposals for amendments of the bill. They urged Mayor de Blasio to reconsider its provisions prior to approval, in an effort to extend protections to precarious workers who may otherwise be unaccounted for under the bill’s narrow definition of the term “intern”. Similar opposition and suggestions were offered by attorney Craig Gurian. “Would it really be OK for a hospital to tell a prospective volunteer, ‘Sorry, we only take whites,’” he argued. “Or to say, ‘Thanks for helping us out, but by the way, you’re going to be sexually harassed every Wednesday and Friday,’” he added.
Both Intern Labor Rights and Craig Gurian had previously attended the City Council Meeting in March 2014, encouraging the council to re-evaluate Intro 173-A before passage. Despite this, the City Council approved the bill on March 26. Mayor de Blasio followed suit and quickly voiced approval of the legislation immediately after public testimony.
Intern Labor Rights recognizes that this is undoubtedly a significant step towards achieving workplace protections for unpaid interns. Aside from Oregon and Washington, DC, New York City is the only other region to have legislation addressing intern discrimination. Furthermore, several council members in attendance did acknowledge the possibility that more would have to be done to ensure that all New Yorkers are protected from workplace discrimination, regardless of title and compensation.
Given that the bill is now law, Intern Labor Rights proposes the following steps moving forward:
The City should be proactive in holding employers accountable to the criteria of the Department of Labor’s Fact Sheet #71. The new law currently covers unpaid interns who meet the first three of these six criteria. Those unpaid interns in the for-profit sector would be guaranteed the “bona fide training experience that supplements an education”, in addition to being covered by this law. Moreover, internships not meeting such criteria would have to be paid, thus making those interns “employees” covered by current labor laws.
The City Council should revise the language of the bill to cover all individuals in a workplace environment. There are many internships in the non-commercial sector that, despite being unable to meet the criteria of Fact Sheet #71, are still considered legal by many, as they qualify as legitimate volunteerism. Individuals in those situations will remain unprotected by the new law. Furthermore, this bill’s focus on (qualified) interns ignores those in a workplace who may not be interns at all, such as volunteers, unpaid assistants, and undocumented workers. While we think all work should be compensated fairly, we think the least the city could do is extend the protections of this law to those nontraditional workers by revising its language.
To read our official response to the council upon passage prior to the Mayor’s approval, please visit here.
To read our letter to Mayor de Blasio and sign our petition calling for an end to intern wage theft and discrimination, please visit here.