Would Extend Worker Protections to Unpaid Interns, Including Laws Against Discrimination & Sexual Harassment
TRENTON – Legislation sponsored by Senator Nia H. Gill to extend New Jersey’s worker protections – including those involving discrimination and sexual harassment – to unpaid interns in the state was approved today by a Senate committee. The bill would put New Jersey at the forefront of providing crucial protections to unpaid interns, in the wake of a federal court case that highlighted a gaping loophole in state laws.
“Employees across the state are protected by laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment, yet those safeguards do not cover unpaid interns who can be particularly vulnerable to hostile or harassing conduct in the workplace,” said Senator Gill, (D-Essex/Passaic). “By expanding our laws we will better ensure that unpaid interns, many of whom are high school and college students, are in a safe working environment and have a method of recourse if they are subjected to unreasonable treatment.”
In October of 2013, a federal district judge ruled that a Syracuse University student engaged in an internship with the New York television broadcaster, Phoenix Satellite Television U.S., could not bring a sexual harassment lawsuit against her supervisor – who allegedly lured her to his hotel room under the pretext of discussing employment opportunities, then kissed and groped her – because she was unpaid and did not have the status of an employee. As a result, she was not covered by New YorkState or New York City human rights laws. The case, Wang v. Phoenix Satellite Television US, Inc., highlighted the need for reforms to ensure interns are protected.
“This case exposed a loophole in worker protection laws, which likely exists in states across the country. It revealed that even if interns work in the same office and the same hours as their paid counterparts, they are not offered the same legal protections if they are working to gain experience or for academic credit without being paid,” said Senator Gill. “We have to make sure that all workers are protected, regardless of whether they are compensated financially. Doing this will not only benefit interns but will ensure a healthy work environment for all employees.”
Currently, under New Jersey law, only interns who are paid are considered employees. The New Jersey Intern Protection Act (S-539) would extend legal protections and remedies to unpaid interns by amending three state statutes: the Law Against Discrimination, which prohibits discrimination based on age, sex and race, and sexual harassment; the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, which protects whistleblowers from retaliatory action by an employer, and the Worker Freedom From Employer Intimidation Act, which prohibits intimidation relative to religious and political matters in the workplace. The bill would also give the state the authority to bring actions against employers.
New Jersey would become the second state in the nation to provide such protections to unpaid interns under the legislation. Oregon passed a similar law last June. New York City enacted similar legislation in April that took effect this month. The Senate Labor Committee approved the bill by a vote of 4-0. It next goes to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for a vote.