Councilman Jimmy Vacca of the Bronx introduced a new bill that would extend protections against discrimination and harassment to unpaid interns. Credit: William Alatriste/NYC Council
The New York City Council is mulling a bill that would give unpaid interns the same rights against discrimination and harassment already afforded to paid employees.
The bill, brought forward by Bronx Councilman Jimmy Vacca in conjunction with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, would change the current city law against discrimination to include unpaid interns who works for a fixed period of time for training purposes without pay.
Vacca said the catalyst for the bill was a court case from last fall in which Lihuan Wang, who worked in New York as an intern with a Hong Kong-based TV broadcaster, filed suit after a supervisor allegedly sexually harassed her while promising full-time employment.
The court threw out the case because Wang did not have an employee status and was not covered under New York human rights laws, a fact that "dumb founded" Vacca.
"The hole in this law is so big you could drive a Mack truck through it," Vacca said at a Council hearing on Monday. "That's why this council needs to act … I know that interns can be vulnerable, if not more vulnerable, to harassment than any other employee."
Vacca said the only other jurisdiction that currently includes interns in its human rights law instate of Oregon, while California and New York state are considering their own expansions.
The city could be a trailblazer in the area of intern rights, Vacca said. And while he noted many individual companies already have existing harassment and discrimination protections extended to interns, Vacca argued the city law should reflect the same.
"No employee — paid or unpaid — should have to fear that they're not equally protected by the law if they're subjected to a hostile work environment," he added.
Work on the bill is still preliminary, which encouraged advocates and a representative for the city's Commission on Human Rights to press the lawmakers to tweak the language.
Deputy Commissioner Cliff Mulqueen actually recommended that the Council use more general language so as to expand what kinds of interns qualify under the proposal.
The agency also committed to a focused educational campaign to inform employers and interns alike about a potential change in the law.