On March 26, 2014, the New York City Counsel voted unanimously to amend the New York City Human Rights Law (the “NYCHRL”) to allow unpaid interns to sue for harassment and discrimination.  The bill was likely drafted in response to a federal judge’s decision in October 2013, which dismissed an unpaid intern’s sexual harassment claim against her boss, because she was not an “employee” under the NYCHRL.  New York City joins Oregon and Washington, DC as places that are extending such significant protections to unpaid interns.

The bill is expected to be signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, and could become effective sixty (60) days thereafter, just as the summer internship season kicks into high gear.  The bill changes the scope of the existing NYCHRL to extend coverage to unpaid interns.  The bill will allow unpaid interns to sue for harassment, as well as discrimination based on their age, sex, race, creed, color, national origin, sex, disability, marital status, partnership status, sexual orientation, citizenship status, or status as a victim of domestic violence, sex offense or stalking.  The bill 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.

Importantly, the bill makes clear that “interns” include “individuals without regard to whether the employer pays them a salary or wage.”  Interns will now be entitled to bring civil lawsuits under the NYCHRL.

When the bill is signed by the Mayor, unpaid interns will require the same protections as regular employees against harassment and discrimination.  Employers should take the opportunity to review their applicable discrimination and harassment policies to make sure all classes of persons are adequately protected.