Expanding Anti-Discrimination Laws to Protect Unpaid Interns

Summer is just around the corner and already employers are planning for the arrival of unpaid interns to join their workplace ranks. As defined under federal, state and local law, the term “unpaid intern” generally refers to a closely supervised individual who works for an employer on a temporary basis and the work provides training similar to that given in an educational environment. The internship experience is for the benefit of intern, does not displace regular employees, and the employer and intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages or a job at the conclusion of the internship.

Properly classified unpaid internships provide trainees an opportunity to explore and develop new skills in real-world settings. Although they train side-by-side with working employees, in most states unpaid interns do not have the same rights and protections afforded their paid counterparts. Unpaid interns also lack the same opportunity to redress workplace complaints. Some employers and unpaid interns might even be surprised to learn that interns are not protected by most state anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws.

State legislatures are beginning to recognize that interns are equally vulnerable to discrimination and harassment and are making changes. California, Illinois, New York, Oregon, Washington D.C., and New York City each have extended their anti-discrimination and/or sexual harassment laws to cover unpaid interns. Most of these laws protect unpaid interns from harassment and discrimination based on membership in a protected category such as age, race, color, national origin, gender, disability or sexual orientation. An employer also may be expected to provide interns with accommodations related to pregnancy. Illinois law covers unpaid interns only for sexual harassment.

Extending legal protections to unpaid interns means that trainees are covered by the same policies practices for opportunity, accommodation and redress an employer has in place for employees and applicants. The new laws also allow interns to avail themselves of the same legal recourses that are available to employees for infringement of rights or retaliatory action. Inclusion of unpaid interns is a legislative trend that is likely to continue.

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