Can an Unpaid Intern Be Discriminated Against or Sexually Harassed?

Yes. In New York State, the same laws that protect employees from discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace also apply to, and provide protection to, unpaid interns.

The New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) protect unpaid interns against discrimination and harassment in the workplace based upon age, race, creed/religion, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex/gender, disability, genetic predisposition or carrier status, marital status, domestic violence victim status, or citizenship or immigration status. Further, interns who oppose discrimination or file complaints of discrimination are protected from retaliation. The laws also make it unlawful for employers to compel an intern who is pregnant to take a leave of absence, unless the pregnancy prevents the intern from performing the functions of the internship in a reasonable manner.

Under the NYSHRL and NYCHRL, an “intern” is any person who performs work for an employer for the purpose of training if:

  1. ​the individual works for a fixed period of time at the end of which there is no expectation of employment (the employer is not committed to hire the person performing the work at the conclusion of the training period);​
  2. the employer and the person performing the work agree that the person performing the work is not entitled to wages for the work performed; and
  3. the work performed:
    1. provides or supplements training given in an educational environment that may enhance the employability of the intern;
    2. provides experience for the benefit of the individual performing the work;
    3. does not displace regular employees; and
    4. is performed under the close supervision of existing staff.

Unpaid interns are also protected from sexual harassment because it is a form of gender discrimination . Sexual harassment comes in two types. Quid pro quo harassment occurs when employment benefits are given or withheld in response to the victim’s actions. The second type of harassment is evidenced by a hostile work environment. Simply put, a hostile work environment exists when a supervisor or coworker engages in unwanted physical or verbal conduct that creates an offensive or hostile workplace.

A hostile work environment caused by sexual harassment can be created by many different things, including:

  • Sexual comments or emails;
  • Unwelcome physical touching; or
  • Sexually explicit jokes.

These are just a few examples. Generally, one mild instance of inappropriate behavior would not rise to the level of a hostile work environment. But a pattern of behavior or even one instance of extreme conduct could create a hostile work environment.

Contact an Experienced Attorney

If you are an unpaid intern and are the victim of workplace discrimination or sexual harassment, contact an experienced New York sexual harassment lawyer at Phillips & Associates. To schedule a free and confidential consultation, call (212) 248-7431 or complete our online contact form.

45 Broadway, Suite 620,
New York NY, 10006
Tel: 212-248-7431
Fax: 212-901-2107