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 the Assembly Labor 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 covered by laws that provide protections against discrimination and harassment, yet those safeguards do not extend to unpaid interns. This is concerning, particularly since interns are often high school and college students who can be more vulnerable to mistreatment in the workplace,” said Senator Gill, (D-Essex/Passaic). “By updating our laws we will better ensure that unpaid interns are in a safe working environment and have a method of legal recourse if their rights are violated.”
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 gap in worker protection laws that likely exist in other states across the country. Essentially it found that unpaid interns, many of whom are working to gain experience or academic credit as they prepare for a career, are not provided the same legal protections as those who are paid. This is unacceptable and leaves these individuals open to harassment or other harmful workplace situations,” said Senator Gill. “We must ensure that all workers are protected, regardless of whether they are compensated financially. This will not only benefit interns but will ensure a healthy work environment for all workers.”
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.
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. The Senate approved the bill in June by a vote of 35-1. It next goes to the full Assembly for a vote.