Mayor DeBlasio signs employment law protecting interns from discrimination

Interns in New York City are famously overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. Whether they work on Wall St. or on Broadway, interns sacrifice short-term earning potential in order to advance in a difficult career. Interns are not employees by law, meaning that historically many of the legal protections afforded to employees were not granted to interns. Performing "grunt work" like brewing coffee, making photocopies and running business errands are par for the course, along with many other unglamorous tasks. Just ask Stephen Colbert's " Jay the Intern."

But asking an unpaid intern to put up with discrimination or sexual harassment is no longer tolerated under state law. On April 15, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio signed into law a bill protecting unpaid interns from sexual harassment and discrimination. The legislation came about after a 20 year-old unpaid intern in New York had her sexual harassment case dismissed because she did not meet the definition of an employee.

Internships coming under scrutiny

Internships skyrocketed after the Great Recession. However, colleges around the state are examining the benefits of internships. A recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that unpaid internships don't necessarily help students land full-time jobs. Columbia University no longer gives credit to students for internships. New York University verifies that internships meet Department of Labor guidelines before posting such positions on their career website. Horror stories of internships that are tantamount to unpaid labor that bring little or no benefit abound.

While many labor advocates are celebrating the new law, critics remain. The language of the bill requires an internship covered under the new law to meet Department of Labor guidelines. Some unpaid "internships" may not be covered. Eric Glatt, who interned for Fox Searchlight and sued the film company for back pay, testified at the hearing that the new law "sets a bad sloppy precedent."

However, City Council James Vacca disagreed with that sentiment, believing the bill to be "very inclusive." He also indicated a willingness to revise the language of the law if it proves to be necessary.

Employment discrimination prohibited by law

Under federal, employers cannot discriminate against an employee on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability or age. New York, considered progressive on employment law issues, has also prohibited discrimination based on marital status, sexual orientation, military status, political activities and other classes.

The right internship can indeed advance a career. However, an internship is not indentured servitude. Interns in New York now have increased rights under state law. Interns who believe they have experienced discrimination, sexual harassment or other illegal behavior should contact an experienced employment law attorney to discuss their legal rights and options.