Until now, interns in New York were not considered employees, and thus were not entitled to the protection of New York law regarding sexual harassment and discrimination. That loophole is no more. But on Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that gives New York interns the same workplace protections as regular employees.
The bill defines an intern as a person who performs work for an employer for the purpose of training, providing that the employer is not committed to hire the intern when the internship ends, and that the intern is not entitled to wages for the work performed. The work must provide or supplement training that may enhance the intern's employability and experience. It also may not displace regular employees, and must be performed under the close supervision of existing staff.
The law makes it illegal for an for an employer to discriminate against an intern because of his or her age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, marital status, or domestic violence status. This applies to both employment and hiring practices, which means that the employer cannot express any limitation on hiring which either directly or indirectly is based on any of the above protected areas.
The law also makes it illegal for employers to retaliate against an intern who has filed a complaint about any of the prohibited practices. In addition, an employer under the law cannot compel an intern who is pregnant to take a leave of absence unless the pregnancy prevents the intern from performing her duties in a reasonable manner.
Finally, the new law makes it illegal for an employer to engage in sexual harassment towards an intern. Such harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term of the intern's employment, or submission to such conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions or creates a hostile work environment.
Ironically, the new law was signed as federal regulators narrow the circumstances in which people can be treated as interns, and as other interns push back in courts against businesses that allegedly treat them as free labor instead of people seeking educational or vocational opportunities.