Sex and the City: No Protection for Unpaid Interns in New York

By: Victoria Stubbolo

The notion of unpaid internships, which have quickly become an almost necessary precursor for any college student looking to attain gainful employment post-grad, has been hit with yet another bout of controversy.  This time the controversy lies within the New York state laws, or lack thereof, denying unpaid interns an arguably essential protection from sexual harassment.  A New York District Court judge recently ruled that unpaid interns will not receive the same protections from sexual harassment allotted to their coworkers by the New York Human Rights Law, because they do not fall within the parameters of a “real employee”. [1] The notion of “no paycheck, no protections” understandably has many up-in-arms[2], with New York State Senator Liz Krueger taking the initiative to introduce legislation to remedy this apparent oversight.[3]

This flagrant oversight of an increasingly significant part of the workforce was brought to light when a graduate student from Syracuse University sued her boss for sexual harassment. A federal Court held her status as an unpaid intern barred her from filing a hostile working environment suit and dismissed the case.[4]

The growing institution of unpaid internships is rife with controversy, as many feel that they are working at a level equal to or more significant than their paid colleagues. [5]  This freshly exposed oversight in the New York State legal system, which denies what should be basic human rights protections, is sure to add to this feeling of dissatisfaction with that state of unpaid internships.

The law as it currently reads does not afford protections for workers who are not on the payroll.[6] New York’s Human Rights Law has been updated and modified several times over the years, with a glaring omission in the realm of protection for unpaid interns.[7] As most unpaid interns are either college students or recent college graduates, it is disconcerting that our legislative bodies have, yet again, failed to attend to the needs of their constituencies.  For many in this position, an unpaid internship is the first step into the seemingly inaccessible “real world”.  A relatively stagnant economy and lack of available jobs, leaves many highly qualified candidates vying for coveted unpaid internships. Once these jobs are acquired, to many they are an indispensable ticket for future employment, either within the company itself or in the form of a crucial résumé booster.  As such, an impressionable, newly minted member of the workforce should have the protections allotted to his/her colleagues, without which, a young intern is placed in an inappropriate situation with the weight of the world on their shoulders, and no protection from brash consequences of refusing the harassment.

An intern is for all intents and purposes a member of any staff on par with his/her salaried colleagues, and as such should receive the same protections from workplace injustices, which are a clear infringement on basic human rights.  It seems as though Senator Krueger is taking a step in the right direction, and now it is just up to the New York State Legislature to follow suit and reform this evidently antiquated version the Human Rights Laws.


[4] Judy Greenwald, Business Insurance (October 10, 2013)  http://www.businessinsurance.com/article/20131010/NEWS07/131019977#

[7] Id.

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