Unpaid interns in New York City will have the same workplace protections as paid employees thanks to a measure passed Wednesday by the City Council.
Intro 173-A, sponsored by Democratic Councilman James Vacca of the Bronx, will prohibit employers from discriminating against unpaid interns on the basis of gender, race or any other protected class. The bill sprang from a recent high-profile sexual harassment claim against Phoenix Satellite Television US, whose former intern, Lihuan Wang, said she was subjected to aggressive sexual advances at the hands of her boss, Washington bureau chief Liu Zhengzhu. The claim was dismissed when a federal district judge in New York found that Wang was not entitled to workplace protections because she was not being paid.
The judge’s decision gained an enormous amount of press and called attention to a labor law loophole “so large you could drive a Mack truck through it,” as Vacca has said. The bill passed unanimously with a vote of 50-0, and will make New York City one of the first municipalities in the country to enact legislation aimed specifically at protecting interns. The state of Oregon passed a similar law in June 2013.
Christina Isnardi, a junior at New York University, who testified (along with this reporter) in support of the bill at a City Council hearing on March 17, said in a phone call on Tuesday that, as someone who will be entering the workforce soon, she was glad to see the level of support for the legislation. “For me, I’m someone who is currently going through this process and will be protected under it,” Isnardi said.
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City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said interns, given their relative youth and inexperience, are particularly vulnerable to on-the-job harassment. “No one should ever have to tolerate a discriminatory work environment, regardless of title,” she said in a statement. “Interns are often young people getting their first experience in a professional setting, so it’s especially important that they are exposed to a respectful and appropriate work environment where their rights are protected.”