NYC Passes Amendment to Protect Unpaid Interns Against Sexual Harassment

Interns and harassment
The bill amends the New York City Human Rights Law after a ruling that said unpaid interns weren’t protected by laws against sexual harassment Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters

Following a legislative hearing last week, the New York City Council voted unanimously on Wednesday to pass an amendment extending sexual harassment and civil rights protections to unpaid interns.

The bill amends the New York City Human Rights Law in the wake of a 2013 decision that Lihuan Wang, a former unpaid intern at Phoenix Satellite Television, could not bring a sexual harassment suit because she was not a paid employee.

“We think it’s a gigantic step forward,” City Councilman James Vacca, the prime sponsor of the bill, told Newsweek. “I think it fills a hole that was as big as a Mack truck. The Wang decision really was an awakening for many of us.”

Vacca said he expects Mayor Bill de Blasio to sign it within 10 days. New York would then join Washington, D.C., as one of the only cities in the country to put explicit protections in place for unpaid workers.

But the language of the bill has been criticized by advocates who argue that its definition of an intern is too narrow. It requires an internship to conform to Labor Department guidelines in order to be covered.

As employment attorney Rachel Bien argued at the hearing, the wording could force interns to choose between the right to be compensated and being covered by legal protections.

“That description of what an intern is might satisfy their imagination about what interns look like, but it’s not reflective of reality,” said Eric Glatt, who sued Fox Searchlight for back pay after an unpaid internship on the set of Black Swan. “That language would not have protected any of the interns working on the film Black Swan. And it would not be protecting thousands of interns working at their jobs right now.”

Glatt, who wrote a prepared testimony for last week’s hearing, said he hopes de Blasio will urge the City Council to adopt more inclusive language instead of signing it.

“I think it sets a bad sloppy precedent. I want to see the council take a much greater, deeper interest,” he said.

Vacca disputed the criticism that the bill isn’t strong enough.

“We think its a very inclusive bill,” he said. “[But] going forth, if theres a need to revisit this item because of a clarity issue, I would be open to that.”

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