It’s only a few months before New York City’s businesses start putting newly accepted college interns to work, and despite internships being mostly unpaid, those in New York have recently been granted the right to sue their employers for workplace violations.
A new amendment was overwhelmingly passed by the City Council this past March that gave legal rights previously denied to them, and Mayor Bill de Blasio signed it into law a month later.
“No one should ever have to tolerate a discriminatory work environment,” said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at a press conference.
The amendment was proposed in response to a sexual harassment lawsuit last year, in which 26-year-old intern Lihuan Wang’s case was dismissed because the judge ruled interns were not considered employees and had no legal standing to sue.
“Employers should not look at the passing of this new amendment as a deterrent to bringing in interns but as a win-win with universities,” said Randolph Punter, Senior Career Opportunity Specialist at York College. “Employers should look at interns as a talent pool, flow of constant talented, young minds that are eager and can offer something new.”
The Department of Labor cites an unpaid intern as someone who is working solely for an educational benefit, and doesn’t earn a wage. Also, the employer has to understand that the intern is not there to displace any regular employee or to gain an immediate benefit from the intern’s work.
Despite the added protection, interns are still not protected under a number of New York’s labor laws, according to Professor Robin Harper with York’s Political Science program.
“This action does not change their status as employees,” said Harper. “It does, however, define what an internship is.”
The passing of this new amendment gives young college students who are heading off into the new job market to pursue careers and become the new leaders in our society a sense of protection.
“I never knew that there wasn’t a law protecting interns,” said Shameena Rahaman, 20, York College sophomore, “I thought if you are working for an employer the law protects you.”
“My internship was great, tedious but I got valuable information and experience,” said Shaniqua Lawson, who graduated from York in 2012. “The passing of this amendment can only help interns.”
College students are eager, but still skeptical of what lies ahead. The desperation for work leads to the choice of taking unpaid positions, and even the modest amount of immediate advantage can lead to an employer exploiting an intern. According to a recent ProPublica survey, students praise their internships. Even if it was cleaning the bathroom many felt it was more valuable than sitting in the classroom.
Washington D.C. and Oregon. California and New Jersey have similar legislation pending.